“Well I’m pencil by default”
I recently had a run-in with a customer service representative who was willing to throw herself under the bus and give me her employee number rather than connect me with someone above her with the authority to help solve my problem. Talk about a broken system. I had no issues with her personally besides tedious repetition and a few lies I needed to catch her in so I could finally force her hand. The fact she’d serve herself up, though, meant there would probably be no repercussions. That route would end my refund request and reveal itself as a ploy to break me down—all over a couple hundred dollars. Knowing people who need government assistance have to do the same to literally survive is therefore impossibly heartbreaking.
The bureaucratic rabbit hole nightmare that down-on-their-luck folks must jump into only to oftentimes exit in worse shape is a sign of absolute futility. There will always be some freeloaders milking benefits out of laziness, but they’re a vast minority compared to those treading water until getting back on their feet. All it takes to differentiate the two is an open ear and compassionate heart. Helping someone isn’t about creating precedent or going against rules; it’s about taking the human element into consideration. But as soon as government programs begin operating under the model of outsourced customer service facilitators, humans become statistics. Giving someone money stops being your job and starts becoming the result of your inability to emotionlessly find a reason to send him/her home empty-handed.
I, Daniel Blake looks to put a face to this issue by showcasing the plight of a good-natured, hard-working soul who perfectly fits a demographic these systems have been built to protect. Filmmaking collaborators Ken Loach (director) and Paul Laverty (writer) bring the titular 59-year old everyman to life as he’s caught between programs without any clear escape. Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower who suffered a heart attack after years of caring for his ailing wife while working full-time as a carpenter. His doctor refuses to give him clearance to return to work and yet the government has deemed him three points short of fulfilling their black and white criteria for medical-based compensation. His alternative is applying for unemployment and applying to jobs he isn’t legally allowed to accept.
It’s not enough that Blake must spin in circles (unwittingly bolstering the freeloading stereotype whenever he’s forced to decline a potential job), he’s also of an age/era unfit to enter the job pool with the necessary technical savvy to succeed. He doesn’t have internet, has never used a computer mouse, and isn’t cognizant of how unaccommodating the state is being when they refuse to print out a form for him to fill out despite his having to print a hardcopy to hand-in anyway. He’s being set-up to fail like countless others. You can argue Laverty and Loach have chosen to focus solely on the system at its worse, but when have you ever seen it done better? I’d argue Blake’s ordeal might be as authentic as it gets.
And he isn’t alone. If any section of society needs assistance more than the aged and infirm it’s single parents. Blake meets one while frustrated to the point of dizziness in Katie (Hayley Squires). She too is being shoved out the door on a technicality rather than shown the empathetic decency an understanding of life’s imperfections demands. She’s uprooted her children (Briana Shann‘s Daisy and Dylan McKiernan‘s Dylan) to give them a home, starves herself daily so they can eat, and can’t find a jobs that will allow her to retrieve them from school. Katie is more than her circumstances prove and yet she’d be lost if not for the kindness of strangers. Sadly both she and Daniel still inevitably find themselves on the cusp of defeat.
While I don’t love the argument some English officials have made about this fiction being a poor representation of the process and employees tasked to handle extremely difficult situations (the tools they’re given ensure bottom-line is always paramount to the customer), I can’t say the filmmakers don’t lay it on pretty thick. It’s one thing for Daniel and Katie to find each other and be each other’s rock, but it’s another to paint every citizen of Great Britain as a compassionate soul besides those working for the employment office. In contrast to Daniel’s not quite criminal neighbor (Kema Sikazwe‘s China), a stern yet forgiving convenience store manager, and regular folks letting Blake speak for them during a great scene of civil disobedience, government employees are depicted as evil.
It works in the context of the story Loach and Laverty are sharing, but it can be hard to swallow nonetheless. The realistically drawn characters are ultimately what allowed me to look beyond this truth. What befalls them practically drags the kitchen sink along, but the actors never go too far in their depiction traversing the nonsense. We feel for Daniel and Katie’s troubles because we see how tenacious they are in fighting to not be forgotten. We believe a mother would sacrifice her own health and self-worth to provide for her kids and know that a genial older man who would help you sight unseen if asked would find charitable souls returning the favor. They’re the best of humanity at the worst of times. They’re worth saving.
Johns wonderfully possesses the fire to combat idiocy with irritation and humor while also maintaining the warmth to instill a sense of hope in his new friend. And Squires often steals the spotlight in her desolation, the pain of watching her children suffer keeping her from giving up when it’s obvious the thought crossed her mind. Laverty adds a sympathetic government worker (Kate Rutter‘s Ann) to bridge the gap separating these two from their enemy and for the most part our confidence in a happily ever is sustained as a result. Unfortunately the arduous process for potential success often destroys you long before the spoils are seen. Hopefully the film does anger staffers and they try harder to embrace the gray areas in order to repair their image.
 Dave Johns as Dan, and Hayley Squires as Katie in Ken Loach’s I, DANIEL BLAKE. Photo by Joss Barratt. Courtesy of Sundance Selects. A Sundance Selects release.
 Hayley Squires as Katie, Briana Shann as Daisy, and Dylan McKiernan as Dylan in Ken Loach’s I, DANIEL BLAKE. Photo by Joss Barratt. Courtesy of Sundance Selects. A Sundance Selects release.
 Dave Johns as Dan, Hayley Squires as Katie, Briana Shann as Daisy, and Dylan McKiernan as Dylan in Ken Loach’s I, DANIEL BLAKE. Photo by Joss Barratt. Courtesy of Sundance Selects. A Sundance Selects release.