Image courtesy of Why Not Productions
Ken Loach follows up his 2016 drama I, Daniel Blake with another left-wing diatribe, this time targeting the exploitative and unforgiving practices of Zero Hours contractors. The film follows the Turner family, thrown into disarray, overwork, frustration and ever spiralling debt when father Ricky takes a job as a courier for a delivery company. He is sold on the prospect as an opportunity to become self-employed and start his own business, but it rapidly becomes clear that that official line is merely a waiver to keep accountability in his hands and not the company's.
We also follow mother Abby through her day as a home-calling care assistant, and son Sebastian's increasingly destructive delinquency. For all the hardships he brings down on his family, we struggle to hate Seb the way we feel we ought, because his despondency and arrogance are so relatable. He has seen first-hand how little society cares for his family, and as much as they might care for him, he knows they are fighting a losing battle.
As Ricky and Abby work harder and harder, their situation grows only more desperate. The characters make mistakes, and that leaves them only more vulnerable to the companies exploiting their labours.
Loach's goal with the film is wholly singular, to condemn a situation that sustains companies that make their highest profits by treating employees like gears, to be worked as hard as possible and then replaced when worn out. To this end he includes only enough personality or story as is required to make the situation feel relatable. Once again, he uses non-professional actors extensively, although I think to only moderate success here. Debbie Honeywood as Abby is superb, playing her part with a measured, spread well too thin patience and when the levees break on her character it's devastating. Rhys Stone as son Seb however is less convincing, looking at all times like someone who knows there is a camera on him and isn't sure how to behave. Everyone else in the cast falls somewhere in between, at times capturing a totally unaffected honesty and documentary heartbreak, at others distracting and making the film's artifice all the more apparent.
That is my main concern with the film, as it was with I, Daniel Blake, that the film's first priority, to incense the viewer is kept well within sight the whole time, and although it never reaches the level of contrivance that I, Daniel Blake did, where I did feel "okay, you're laying on a bit thick now", it does feel like a very heavy handed and unsophisticated piece. It does go beyond established genre staples in some regards, as always with this tradition, everything comes back to Bicycle Thieves, in showing the whole family and making their individual perspectives feel very different, organically conflicted, and yet each totally understandable. Ricky clings onto the naive belief that an honest day's work will be rewarded in the end, Abby's heart goes out to everyone around her and yet is no less powerless than her children, Seb lashes out self destructively and precocious young daughter Liz just desperately attempts to keep the family together at all cost. Each of these characters makes mistakes, and makes things worse, but no one could have expected more from any of them. In one crucial scene, Ricky objects that he's doing his best, and his son snaps back coldy that his best is not enough, and Loach's film emerges as a granite portrait of a society for whom no one's best is enough.
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