Year: 2016
Director(s): Ken Loach
Writer(s): Paul Laverty
Region of Origin: UK

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
35mm, Color, 100 mins

Synopsis: After having suffered a heart-attack, a 59-year-old carpenter must fight the bureaucratic forces of the system in order to receive Employment and Support Allowance. (Source)

We don’t have to look hard to see that there’s a sad story around every corner. Somewhere, someone has fallen on hard times, marginalized by those around them and a transforming society that is moving too fast to notice. I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, confronts this idea head on, forcing us to stop and realize the humanity that falls through the cracks of a broken system. Loach is sharp as ever, with his no-frills approach but wholly immersive intimacy, delivering a sobering tale for our times. If nothing else, the film is a reminder that behind each statistic is a real human being, one that is just doing what they can to get by. As the titular character, Dave Johns turns in a powerful performance as a man trying to hold on to common decency in a dehumanizing world. Together with co-star Hayley Squiers, Johns and Loach have made a film that will stop you in your tracks.

After a major heart attack, 59-year-old widower Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) just wants to return to some form of normalcy. His cardiologist has advised against returning to work, but according to the state, he is deemed fit for a job and denied employment and support allowance. With both agencies’ conflicting assessments, Daniel finds himself in a tight spot, unable to get a job or money from the state. Fed up with being given the runaround, Daniel looks for a way to fight the system so that he can have a fair shot at landing on his feet. Along the way, Daniel meets a struggling single mother named Katie (Hayley Squires), who is going through her own issues with unemployment. Together the two share an unlikely bond as they do whatever they can to stay afloat.

The refreshing part about Loach’s film is that there’s no sensationalism to be found – it’s straight and to the point, diving deep into the tedium of Daniel and Hayley’s desperation. In doing so, the film adopts a slice-of-life point of view, with Loach taking us into the daily lives of his two characters with raw, devastating realism. We watch as Daniel has difficulties learning how to use the internet, waiting on the other end of long, automated calls, shuffling through bread lines, enduring an endless cycle of referrals and other more dehumanizing situations. Loach also finds great contrast in the way that Daniel and Katie meet in the middle but take two very different routes to attain their goals. At the center of it all, the film’s matter-of-fact execution allows each frustrating situation to breathe and speak for itself, emphasizing with restraint the fact that compassion and basic human decency can go a long way.

Loach’s approach works because of his amazing cast. As Daniel, Dave Johns is a brilliant embodiment of both the film’s hope and desperation. Daniel goes from one exasperating situation to another, and yet Johns gives the character a stoicism and patience that cuts through the noise. Sure, he has his moments of weakness, but the film’s blinding light is that Daniel is able to freely give the compassion that is denied him – Johns is great at conveying this idea with nuance and at times endearing wit. As Katie, Hayley Squires is also a powerhouse. Overall, Katie is more overt with her frustration, carrying some of the film’s most harrowing moments, and Squires renders her character with both desperation and warmth.

As you can probably guess, I, Daniel Blake is not a film you watch for fun. It’s not entertaining in a traditional sense, but a necessary wake up call with a timely message. It’s a bleak film that doesn’t shy away from the struggles at its core, and yet, it also isn’t without hope, a hope that if we all stop and take the time to react with compassion, that maybe the world will be a little better, even if it can never be perfect.

SG