The United Kingdom has been socked by the ravages of neoliberal capitalism. Rather than serving the best interests of its subjects, the government seems to regard them as a problem to be solved or, better still, ignored. A technocratic, bureaucratic system of means-tested quasi-solutions serves to funnel human suffering into a warren of endless regulations and paperwork, where the dispossessed are left to die alone. The social safety net is a joke, having been gutted and stripped for parts by rapacious Tory governments and useless Labour opposition. And that's when things get really bad for our heroes.

Yep, Sorry We Missed You sure is a Ken Loach film with a Paul Laverty screenplay, all right. And nearly a quarter of a century after those two began their robust ongoing partnership with Carla's Song in 1996, every English-language cinephile surely has some idea of what that means, and if this is something they're up for. Sorry We Missed you neither surprises nor disappoints, with one caveat: this particular harangue against the national incarnation of a global system that murders and eats the poor has shown up in the United States at an uncannily perfect time for its message to ring out loud and clear. If I'd reviewed this film in February 2020, I would most likely have given it the same 4 stars, made several of the same observations about what works and what doesn't and wrapped the whole thing up in a gregarious frame of how that ol' Ken, he sure does like to pile miseries onto his characters.Β  For this story of one family's struggles with whatever the British equivalent is of the gig economy does not stint in piling any number of horrors onto that family, finding every possible way for things to go wrong. But instead I write this in March 2020, and the world has outdone even Loach's imagination for miserabilism in showing just how terrifying and helpless a life of economic precarity can be.

The scale of the bad things to come is clear literally from the first instant of the film, as the chilly sans-serif titles play out in white against a black backdrop, while we hear a man we'll eventually know as Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) getting a rundown from Maloney (Ross Brewster) about Ricky's exciting new job as a franchised self-employed contractor for the package delivery company where Maloney is a low-level manager. Even before we know anything about the men but the sounds of their voice, we can already feel the storm clouds gathering, hearing the very peppy, robotic terminology Maloney uses to describe the various ways that his company disavows any and all responsibility for Ricky's health and wellbeing. By the third scene, the film introduces the notion that it will take all of the Turner's resources to buy the van that Ricky needs to do this job, and I immediately began to steel myself for the inevitable Bicycle Thieves moment that never actually comes: it's maybe the one fucking horrible thing that doesn't happen to the Turners over the film's 101 minutes.

The rest of the family are Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), who works inconsistent and impossible hours as an on-call caregiver to old people who shouldn't live alone but do; Seb (Rhys Stone), a teenager who has taken to tagging surfaces with graffiti and otherwise acting out, obviously in the hope that if his parents see he's in trouble, they'll pay attention to him; and Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), who has a child's optimistic belief that if she refuses to notice any of the above going on, that means it's not. It is in this cluster of four people that Sorry We Missed You does all of its work of sketching out a proper tragedy, with all the weight that word implies. This is a story in which people are trapped in certain courses of action, and have the profound misfortune to know it. Ricky is aware that selling Abbie's car to buy his van is going to make her already ridiculous schedule even more unmanageable, but he can't choose otherwise; Abbie knows that fleeing the house at all hours to go with with elderly sick people is making her children feel abandoned and loveless, but she can't choose otherwise.

The film's greatest strength is building an incredibly strong domestic core around these four people, immaculately defined by the writing and splendidly performed by all four actors. Loach and Laverty correctly note, as they did with 2016's Palme d'Or-winning I, Daniel Blake (to which this feels very definitely like a companion piece) that the key to telling a story about systemic, if not universal injustice is to ground it in the most precise, specific setting and story possible. The Turners are extraordinarily real people. They speak with an accent and a vocabulary that's so particular and idiosyncratic that, even as I have no idea where that accent comes from, I'm still entirely persuaded that it must be entirely pure and true to life; their house is lived-in through every single visual detail; their behavior grows out of personalities that constantly reveal themselves to us and always feel exactly correct. Late in the film, Abbie has an outburst and then apologises, saying that she doesn't like to swear; I hadn't noticed that about her, but the instant she said it, I knew that all along, I knew she was the kind of person that didn't like to swear, and I knew how much it ripped out of her to go on that tirade, and Honeywood sells the fury and the embarrassment and the sudden swift turning back inwards as Abbie tries to undo everything that just happened with such acute feeling that I can't imagine seeing a single moment of acting that breaks me so intensely in whatever ends up emerging as the 2020 movie year.

By having such a strong family dynamic at its core, Sorry We Missed You manages to personalise the widespread suffering it's condemning, and thus makes it easier for us to see the humanity behind those unemployment and underemployment numbers. It also gives the film something to anchor itself when things get a little bit too enthusiastically bleak. Because there does come a point - and it comes several times - when the misfortunes that befall Ricky do seem to strain the limits of what's dramatically satisfying. As I said, we're living in a time when, in fact, every awful thing is happening all at once, so I'm more inclined to give this kind of thing a pass; at the same time, storytelling is storytelling, and plausible or not, the story in Sorry We Missed You can't help but feel a little contrived, as though the filmmakers took it as a personal dare to respond to the question "how much more can this guy take?" with the answer "much more", and decided that proving it was more important than making justified decisions. Having the family in place always gives us, as it were, a home to return to; the film is never unsatisfying as a family drama, even when it's a bit tiring as a polemic. And better still, the ebbs and flows of the family drama happen just enough out of sync with the ebbs and flows in Ricky's employment situation that the film doesn't fall into the I, Daniel Blake trap of being unrelenting; it has light moments, and moments where life actually seems worth living, and moments where the simple goodness of the Turner's relationships reminds us of why Ricky and Abbie would endure all of this shit in the first place. It is a heavy, grueling film, but it is also a sincerely humane one, and that makes so much difference.