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Three social commentary movies

Three of the recent movies I watched share a similar theme of social realism. Without specifically saying it, they use real situations in daily struggles of the working class to shine a light on how broken our socio-political and power systems are. Inevitably, these systems rely on fear, ignorance, and greed – leading us to question our social values and the political messaging that allow for these extreme outcomes.

The first two are by well-known British director known for these social commentary movies and the third is by a debut feature film by an American director who has finally translated his earlier short film into a well-crafted small but powerful knockout.

1. The Old Oak

Released: 2023
Director: Ken Loach

This latest and final offering from 87-year-old British auteur Ken Loach—known for his distinct brand of social realism movies—takes place in a former mining community in Northeast England, near Durham. It is set in 2016 and starts with a busload of Syrian refugees arriving unannounced to start their new lives in the town, where cheap and available houses make it an ideal location to house the influx of refugees. 

The Old Oak is the last pub standing in the town. Owned and run by TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), the pub holds many faded memories for the community. The old surviving stalwarts keep coming for a drink and a chin wag, but they are now threatened and feel resentment at being displaced by a group of intruders whom they feel are being shown a degree of generosity and kindness they themselves have been denied. The Syrians become an easy scapegoat for all their misery. 

TJ develops an unlikely friendship with Yara (Ebla Mari) the eldest daughter in one of the Syrian households. She’s an inquiring photographer who starts to see and capture her new social environment through her camera lens. TJ offers to help fix her damaged camera, a sentimental gift from her father who remains imprisoned back in Syria, and she in return learns through his eyes about the plight of the townsfolk left behind as relics of cruel economic progress. 

Dividing vs. uniting

What unfolds is a deeply moving drama about people from different backgrounds and their fragilities and hopes. Can they overcome their instinctive prejudices, mostly formed by ignorance and an upbringing that defaults to vilifying any form of otherness? These differences inevitably stem from religion, skin colour or even the kind of food we eat.

Food serves as a common, universal language when all else fails. Yara picks up a slogan in an old photograph at the pub which resonates particularly with her and her experience. It reads “When you eat together, you stick together”. The photo was from the period when the community pulled together to help feed themselves when it went head-on with the authorities during the tumultuous time the mines were being closed. Yara explains to TJ that it was exactly what her community had to do to survive when hiding under staircases because of the war back in Syria. And so, food, the pub and the Syrian immigrants become the potent confluence of elements to rekindle a sense of unifying social purpose for a community in decline. 

Togetherness and comfort through loss

In a pivotal scene in which Yara and her mother show up at TJ’s house bearing food when they hear of his tragic loss of a loved one, they comfort him, not through words, but with food they have cooked for him. Their gesture of humanity is profound and cuts deeply, especially when she says, “we understand love and loss”. TJ, in return reconsiders his initial objections and agrees to allow them to use his pub as a venue for a new social initiative to help feed the underprivileged kids in the community, bringing them all together… until yet another unexpected setback pops up to stop them. 

The sense of renewed community, albeit of an unexpected complexion is deeply moving. Lots of tissues are needed when we see the community respond in unexpected ways to comfort Yara and her family when they are faced with bad news from home.

One can’t help but boil in anger when realising that instead of bringing people together our political leaders would rather forge division and hatred, if only to personally profit from a situation that could otherwise be used to nurture love, compassion, understanding and a real rich human connection and meaning for the benefit of all concerned.

Quotes from other reviews

“As you’d expect, it is a compassionate film that is respectful all round but it is also heavy-handed, soapy and sentimental, with a redemptive ending that is unearned.” Deborah Ross, The Spectator 

“The Old Oak might just be the most potent cinematic comment on post-Brexit Britain without ever uttering the word. It’s also a sentimental reminder that the local pub serves the public – no matter where they come from.” Hanna Flint, Soho House

2. Sorry We Missed You

Released: 2019
Director: Ken Loach 

Perhaps it wasn’t such a wise move to watch another Ken Loach movie back-to-back with The Old Oak, as this was even more intense and distressing. This one shines a light on the gig economy and how corporate culture has exploited the worker in the name of business improvement and efficacy, to the exclusion of any compassion or concern for the human beings that should matter.

This recent digitally disruptive phenomenon, driven by technology, plays out in the way we now secure supposedly independent Uber drivers to fulfil our food delivery and transportation needs.

And if you’re familiar with the other work of the director, you won’t need a warning that it’s going to be an unfiltered look at another social situation that is being examined critically.

The premise

Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) have two children and they live in Newcastle. Following the global financial crisis of 2008, when Ricky lost his stable job and their opportunity of buying their own home slipped away, they have been struggling to survive and to cope with mounting debt. He works as a handyman getting by with odd jobs while she works as a nurse in the public health service, providing visiting home care for her elderly ‘clients’. 

Their dream of having financial independence and to stand on their own feet owning their own home remains strong. As such, Ricky decides to bravely take on a franchise contract as a freelance courier for an established parcel delivery company. Impressed by his values and resolve to work hard to provide for his family, his supervisor Maloney (at the delivery company congratulates him for becoming his own boss. 

The terms of the contract are however skewed against the independent gig worker, what with him having to provide the van himself and his work schedule totally dictated by a tracking system and device that sets his targets for him without any say for himself. To afford the van, they decide to sell Abby’s car which in turn makes her already stressful job even more exhausting by having to make her patient rounds by public transport. 

Downward spiral of despair

The day-to-day reality of Ricky being a self-employed parcel delivery driver bring unexpected challenges for both him and Abby. They both find themselves working 14-hour days. Caught in a predicament that only pays per order fulfilled according to precise timing expectations, Ricky soon reaches his limits where exhaustion and existential anxiety take over. 

Continual absence from the parents has a negative effect on the children and teenage son Seb begins to rebel, adding to their problems by having to deal with his delinquency while desperately trying to hold on to their demanding jobs. Poor younger daughter Liza is left to grow up quickly to try and keep the four together.  

Ricky and Abby are now caught in a vicious circle of dependencies they desperately need to break out from. We can’t help but feel for them as they become swept up in a downward spiral of despair! 

Social injustice

Without uttering a word of political rhetoric, the movie nevertheless homes in on the social injustices of living in a cruel conservative and capitalistic world view where the privileged deserve their good fortunate, the poor must be lazy, stupid, or just unlucky and all rewards are reserved for those who are assertive and smart enough to grab them. We constantly see this in the way corporate giants get away with not paying any taxes, declaring huge profits and obscene bonuses for management executives while constantly reducing headcounts and denying fair wage increases for their employees. 

This isn’t applicable to just modern-day UK but pretty much anywhere in the democratic world of capitalism. It also confirms the reality that once we’ve been dealt a bad hand in life, no amount of love, goodwill or hard work can save us. 

And the social system—which ought to have the discretion, ability, and humanity to realise and help you get through it—doesn’t. Again, we can’t help but look disapprovingly towards our politicians for their own greed, failure, and refusal to address the real issues facing working families and the ordinary man on the street. 

Rather than rewarding the bullying master at the top of the food chain, why aren’t they doing enough to protect the poor overworked and dispensable pawn at the bottom of the food chain who’s really driving the profits that are only afforded to those already sitting comfortably at the top? 

Ken Loach movies

My introduction to the oeuvre of Ken Loach was his 1994 film Ladybird, Ladybird. It was, for me, a powerful and moving social commentary on the social welfare system in having to deal with a recalcitrant and reckless single mother who was unable to raise her children without the help of society. She is clearly incapable of making the right choices for herself and yet she continued to bear more and more offspring. 

When the underaged children were unfortunately left to fend for herself while she sneaked off to the pub for a good time, and the house accidentally caught fire, social services swoop in to take away her children, declaring her unfit to be a parent. A gut-wrenching scene ensued when the officers from social services stood by ready to snatch her baby away for resettlement with worthy parents as soon as it was born.

The other significant Ken Loach movie that forms a Northeast trilogy with The Old Oak and Sorry We Missed You is I, Daniel Blake. Released in 2016, it tells the story of a 59-year-old carpenter who must fight bureaucratic forces to receive Employment and Support Allowance after suffering a heart attack. 

Loach’s films usually convey a sense of political indignation, eschewing the polished and prescriptive Hollywood style, sometimes using first timers and non-professionals to convey a sense of authenticity, but with mixed results.

3. Your Lucky Day

Released: 2023
Director: Daniel Brown

This debut feature film by writer/director Daniel Brown comes 13 years after his short film that preceded it. Brown appears to have taken his time refining every aspect of the film he wanted to make, and the result is a gripping piece of small-scale filmmaking that takes on the very big and pertinent issues, namely the economic challenges and social aspects of life under capitalism. 

The characters

It is late at night; a group of strangers find themselves in a little corner convenience store. Brown wastes no time introducing each of the key characters. There’s Amir (Mousa Hussein Kraish), behind the counter who owns the store with his brother. Sterling (the late Angus Cloud) is a young drug dealer huddled over a magazine, looking extremely shifty in his hoody. Ana (Jessica Garza), who is heavily pregnant and still in her waitress uniform, stands by the ice cream freezer with her boyfriend Abraham (Elliot Knight) dressed in a suit and tie from his gig playing piano at a mall. 

An off-duty police officer Cody (Sterling Beaumon) wanders the aisle. And finally, there’s Mr. Laird (Spencer Garrett) at the counter. We overhear their conversations, all invariably about money. Mr. Laird baulks at the price of what he’s buying, insulting Amir and being disrespectful to him before proclaiming, “I love small businesses.” Sure, he does. He then buys a lottery ticket and promptly wins $156 million. 

Laird is not only a cocky and loud jerk, but also stupid. Because he unthinkingly creates an excited scene about how much money he just won. Everyone is not just irritated but also jealous of his potential to achieve his ‘American dream’ through an undeserved windfall. They could all do with the money too. So why does it have to be him? 

Mayhem driven by a lottery ticket

The winning lottery ticket, and all the opportunities it presents for a better life it can buy, is the coveted object that sets off the high-stakes drama that keeps twisting and turning right through its 89 minutes. This film is not only intense but face-paced, leaving you barely able to catch your breath from one scene to the next.

Sterling, whom we saw in the opening scene being mugged and desperate to make up for his financial losses, immediately seizes the opportunity by creating a makeshift mask. He brandishes his gun in an attempt to confiscate the winning ticket to resolve his immediate problems. 

However, things don’t go as smoothly for him, and soon gun shots are fired, blood spilled and all the other people in the store are presented with very real and hard choices to make to survive and perhaps even profit from the ordeal. 

Angus Cloud, in a posthumous movie release that reprises his attention-grabbing role of Fezco from the acclaimed TV series Euphoria, plays the sympathetic and cool drug dealer and does a commendable job as the laid back and amiable criminal. Jessica Garza is equally impressive as the reluctant but quick-thinking and creative participant in the crime-making, if only to grab her fair shot at a better life for her unborn child. 

The price of a dream life

In an unexpected twist, new characters come into play. We are left to and question if everyone in the film has their own personal threshold of right or wrong which they are willing to cross to lie or kill in order survive and even grab their shot at that elusive and socially nurtured ideal dream life enabled by wealth.

1. The Old Oak

Official trailer

Other reviews

2. Sorry We Missed You

Official trailer

Other reviews

3. Your Lucky Day

Official trailer

Other reviews