March 4, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Ken Loach
Culture Representation: Taking place in Newcastle, England, the drama “Sorry We Missed You” (which has an all-white cast) shows the financial and personal pressures of a working-class family.
Culture Clash: The family’s patriarch and matriarch have high-stress jobs that require them to work long hours away from home, while their teenage son slides further into delinquency.
Culture Audience: “Sorry We Missed You” will appeal primarily to fans of arthouse cinema who want to see a well-written, realistic story of regular people coping with life’s struggles.
With more and more news reports exposing the high-pressure and unethical working conditions of independent workers in the auto transportation business (such as Uber drivers and Amazon delivery drivers), the timing is just right for the dramatic film “Sorry We Missed You,” which takes a riveting and emotionally moving look at how this type of stressful job affects a working-class family in Newcastle, England. “Sorry We Missed You,” directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty, could be an excellent companion piece to their award-winning 2016 film “I, Daniel Blake,” which was about a working-class Newcastle man who’s experiencing a different type of job-related problem.
At the beginning of “Sorry We Missed You,” Ricky Turner (played by Kris Hitchen) is at a job interview for a position as a package delivery driver for a large company that doesn’t keep its drivers on staff but instead hires them as independent workers who get to keep their own hours. (In other words, they’re not unionized and they don’t get employee insurance.) The catch is that the workers have to pay for the upkeep of their own automobiles that they use on the job, and the drivers usually can only make enough money for a decent living wage if they put in very long hours that go way beyond a regular 40-hour work week. And if any of these workers get sick or injured, even if it’s on the job, that’s the workers’ problem (not the company’s) and money out of the workers’ pockets.
Of course, the demanding supervisor named Maloney (played by Ross Brewster) who’s interviewing Ricky doesn’t tell him the down sides of the job in the interview. Instead, Maloney plays up the angle that the job doesn’t have an employee contract, which will give Ricky entreprenuerial freedom, since he’ll be a licensee for the company. As Maloney describes it, all Ricky needs is a driver’s license and a willingness to work hard to be on his way to financial freedom.
Ricky goes home to his loyal wife Abby (played by Debbie Honeywood) to talk about this new job prospect. He’s recently quit his job as a landscaper after being passed over for a promotion, so he’s desperate to find work, and he refuses to live off of government assistance. However, in order to take this new job as a delivery driver, Ricky has to invest in buying his own van. And in order to get the money, they have to sell the family’s only car, which Abby needs for her job as a traveling home-care attendant.
Although Ricky says that he wants to discuss the matter with Abby, the reality is that Ricky has already made up his mind to take the job. He and Abby, who lost their home in the 2008 market crash, have been trying to save up enough money to buy another home. Ricky is convinced that this new job will be the best path to reaching that goal. Abby and Ricky argue over the fact that their car will have to be sold in order to buy the van. But Ricky stands firm and Abby reluctantly agrees to the idea, even though she dreads the inconvenience of now having to take public transportation for her work.
Meanwhile, the couple avoids talking about their troubled teenage son Seb (played by Rhys Stone), who has the makings of becoming a juvenile delinquent. He’s been skipping school and hanging out with a group of mischief makers who like to steal and vandalize the area with graffiti. By contrast, Ricky and Abby’s other child, younger daughter Liza Jane (played by Katie Proctor), is obedient and tries to be as helpful as possible.
On his first day on the job as a delivery driver, Ricky is the very definition of an “eager beaver.” He’s not only eager to please his new boss, he’s also very ambitious and determined to out-work and out-earn all of his fellow drivers at the outpost where he reports, because the top driver get the biggest bonuses.
One of his co-workers offers Ricky an empty water bottle and Ricky asks why. The co-worker tells him he’s going to need the bottle to urinate in it while on the job because he won’t have time to use a restroom while working. Ricky scoffs at the idea and doesn’t take the bottle. It won’t be long before he finds out just how demanding the job is.
During training, Ricky learns that the drivers are under tremendous pressure to deliver a certain number of packages in a certain period of time. Those who fail to meet the company’s target goals are fined and eventually fired. The drivers are given scanners that track the packages and the workers’ every move when they’re on the job. The workers are told from the beginning that if their scanner is lost or stolen, they’re responsible for paying the hefty fee to buy a new scanner.
The drivers also have to follow strict rules to get a signature from everyone who receives a package. If someone isn’t home, the company requires that the drivers leave a “Sorry We Missed You” memo at the delivery address. On his first day on the job, Ricky discovers it’s not as easy as he thought it would be.
In addition to contending with occasional bad traffic and unexpected detours, he also has to deal with other annoyances that affect the speed at which he can deliver packages, such as being given the wrong address or encountering difficult people who don’t want to sign for the package. And sometimes a friendly exchange with a package recipient can turn heated, such as when Ricky (a Manchester native and avid Manchester United fan) gets into an argument with a package recipient who’s a fan of a rival team.
Meanwhile, Abby has had some difficulty adjusting to taking public transportation, which slows down the speed at which she can go from home to home for her job. Because it takes longer for her to travel to her next assignment, it reduces the number of assignments she can take per day, and she gets paid by the visit. The movie shows that Abby is a compassionate and patient person, as her clients (who are usually elderly or have physical limitations) are sometimes overly demanding and downright rude.
Abby, who says she dislikes angry confrontations, is the same way when it comes to dealing with family problems, since she’s more likely than Ricky to want to discuss matters calmly. Ricky has a short temper and is more likely to get into screaming arguments with people. Their contrasting personalities are also reflected in their different parenting styles. While Abby tries to be understanding in helping their obviously troubled son, Ricky is less patient and believes that “tough love” is the best way to get Seb to turn his life around.
Ricky and Abby are coping with the new adjustments in their lives as best as they can. But the inflexible nature of their jobs starts to have a huge effect when Seb begins getting into more trouble (such as fights at school), which requires Ricky or Abby to take time off from work to have meetings with school officials. For Ricky, taking any time off from work can have damaging consequences to his income, because if he doesn’t meet the company’s target goals every day, he will get severe fines.
Tensions come to a head when Ricky finds out that Seb has sold an expensive jacket to buy spray paint for graffiti. They get into an intense argument about Seb’s future, and Seb shouts that he doesn’t want to end up like Ricky. The irony of Ricky’s job is that he took the job to better provide for his family, but the demanding hours (and the fact that employees are punished for taking time off from work) have resulted in Ricky having to spend less time with his family than ever before.
Liza Jane, ever the helpful child, even accompanies Ricky on some weekend deliveries to assist him in making his delivery targets. But when Ricky’s supervisor finds out that an underage child has been working on the job with Ricky, he tells Ricky that he’s prohibited from bringing a child along for deliveries, for liability reasons. Tensions over the job and Seb’s angry rebellion reach a breaking point, and Ricky has to make tough decisions about saving his family from personal and financial ruin. Ricky also finds out how callous and unforgiving the company can be.
“Sorry We Missed You” takes an unflinching look at the toll that the “gig economy” takes on a family that’s living from paycheck to paycheck. The movie is also a scathing indictment of companies that exploit workers under the guise of “independent employment,” which really means that the workers are freelancers who don’t have the same legal protections that come with being a full-time staff employee. The company can then set rules and wages that require the workers to put in much longer hours than what a staff employee would be required to work. Staff employees at blue-collar jobs are usually protected by labor laws that limit the number of hours per week that the staffers can work, but those laws don’t apply to independent/freelance workers.
And when companies have a business model that relies on deliveries where the workers have to provide their own auto transportation for these deliveries, these companies save millions in expenses by not having to pay for the automobiles and any insurance or liabilities that come from owning the automobiles. There are many real-life news reports of current and former employees exposing the harsh working conditions they have to go through in order to make a living wage at these types of companies. (And yes, it’s a very common practice for these workers to urinate in a bottle in order to keep up with time demands.)
The acting, screenwriting and directing for “Sorry We Missed You” are top-notch, as the movie resists making the story into a hokey melodrama and instead realistically portrays the ebbs and flows of a family’s struggles. The Turner family is entirely believable and could be any number of people who are going through the same problems. Viewers don’t have to come from a working-class background to relate to some of the internal conflicts that the family members face.
“Sorry We Missed You” will also make you think twice about the delivery person who always seems to be in a rush and what kinds of job demands are being placed on that person. The movie is a brutally honest look at how conveniences such as quick deliveries come with very real and personal costs to the workers who provide these services.
Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber released “Sorry We Missed You” in New York City on March 4, 2020. The movie will be released in Los Angeles and in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 6, 2020. The U.S. theatrical release date expands to more cities in the subsequent weeks.