Ken Loach, a filmmaker much underappreciated in the United States, is known for making gritty (so, so gritty) movies that address the unpleasant (so, so unpleasant) face of social injustice and unrest. Thus, when I learned that It's a Free World..., the director's latest, was about the exploitation of illegal workers in English factories, it seemed safe to assume that this would be a grim piece of leftist realism. Which it ultimately turns into, but not until more than half of the film has passed in a good-natured quasi-comedy about a ditzy single mom who goes into business for herself finding jobs for unemployed workers.

29-year-old Kierston Wareing makes her film debut as Angie, the aforementioned single mother, newly fired from her job as the Eastern Europe point woman for a recruitment company whose business is the legally grey importing of foreign workers. Thrashing about for some way to pay the bills, she snares her dubious grad-student roommate Rose (Juliet Ellis) into a scheme where, armed only with a motorbike, they'll travel the city looking for workers who need jobs and bosses who need workers, putting them together and eventually setting up a nice little legal business for themselves. It's charmingly just like an '80s film where the sassy blonde and the prim brunette team up to open a [insert business type] and prove to [insert patriarchal figure] that they can make it, after all.

Weirder than the fact that a social realist filmmaker has taken the framework of an '80s grrl-power comedy, is how well the two fit together. It's a Free World... manages to get more than its fair share of sociological commentary in during its first half or so, exploring in pleasing detail just how the British labor and immigrations systems work together; maybe this is stuff is all second-nature to the natives, but if a myopic Yank like myself could walk out of a film with a fairly good idea of what's happening in Great Britain and why it's a problem (it's not at all identical to the immigration debate in the United States), then that film can probably be regarded as a success.

Wareing is a significant component of the film's success. Embodying both a bubbly ambition that suits the film's lapses into feel-good comedy as well as a trashy loudness that marks her as a member of that fuzzy line where the working class becomes the middle class, her depiction of Angie is just about the only thing connecting Loach's dour images with the story's more cheerful elements, and watching her move through the character's many subtle shifts throughout the movie is to watch an actor of no small talent being born in front of your eyes. It's a privilege and a thrill to witness.

Eventually, the film starts to lapse into the sort of grim Loachiness that one might have expected all along, starting with Angie doing a favor for an Iranian family and daisy-chaining in a series of "just so" events to the point where she's essentially a gangster. The contrivance isn't really that obnoxious, but it's hard to argue that the film doesn't fall apart right about this point. For a director noted for his brutal worldview, Loach proves curiously incapable of managing the transition from cheeriness to brutality, even when it happens so gradually as in It's a Free World..., and the result is that Angie's moral fall isn't terribly convincing or serious. Moreover, since the opening of the film seems to cast her as an individual - one woman's struggle to succeed - and the end wants her to be a metaphoric stand-in for all the middle-class Britons who abuse the country's immigrants while being themselves abused by the powers that be. This shift might actually be the most awkward part of the whole movie.

The film has already made most of its point by the time it starts to drift, making its third-act stumbles all the more upsetting. But none of this is enough to make it a failure; it's still a Ken Loach film, after all, and so even if it collapses in on itself a bit, there's still a rough power underneath everything that makes it worth a look, even it's not worth too much love.