I, Daniel Blake (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Small daily struggles against an unfair system

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Ken Roach’s new film “I, Daniel Blake”, which won the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year, is angry about the maddening incompetence of a system which is supposed to help and support people. Watching its aging hero’s small struggles against this unfair system, you will certainly feel the same anger unless you are totally heartless, and then you will also be touched by how he and other characters around him help each other as trying to live through another hard day.

The movie begins with the frustrating conversation between a middle-aged carpenter named Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) and a healthcare service worker who keeps throwing formal questions at him for determining his eligibility for the sickness benefit called ‘Employment and Support Allowance’. While mostly looking fine at present, Daniel recently had a serious heart attack at his workplace, and he really needs this benefit because, as reflected by the subsequent scene with his doctor, he is not yet fully recovered enough to work and earn his living.

Daniel tries to be patient, but he only becomes more frustrated with the tepid bureaucratic process he has no choice but to endure, but then he is notified that his health problem is not severe enough to make him eligible for the sickness benefit. While waiting for a chance to lodge an appeal, he must apply for ‘Jobseekers Allowance’ as an unemployed man, but that means he must seek for a job as demanded in the meantime despite his current health condition.

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The screenplay by Paul Laverty, who wrote the screenplays from Roach’s recent films including “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006) and “The Angel’s Share” (2012), generates acerbic moments of dark absurdity as observing not only how helpless Daniel is in front of the system but also how heartless the system is to many desperate people like Daniel. As an old-fashioned guy who is not so familiar with the Internet, Daniel experiences lots of difficulty when he has to do an online application, and I must tell you that the scene where he attempts to use a computer drew some big chuckles from me and the audiences around me during the screening. At a local job center, one of its employees turns out to be more caring and helpful than others, but then she is later chided by her superior just because she helped Blake a bit more than necessary. I understand that following regulations is crucial for any bureaucratic system, but, folks, what good can a system possibly do if it cares more about regulations than people?

Anyway, Daniel keeps trying while doing whatever he is required to do. He attends a shoddy class where he and others are lectured on how to make good impressions on their potential employers. With his rather rudimentary curriculum vitae, he casually goes around his neighborhood for his perfunctory job-seeking, and there is an ironic moment when he happens to get a very good opportunity of employment at one point.

Meanwhile, he comes to acquaint himself with Katie (Hayley Squires), a young struggling mother of two children who becomes more desperate after her benefit is suspended just because she was late for her appointment at the same job center Daniel went to. Although they came across each other as total strangers, Daniel and Katie soon connect with each other as two working class people coping with each own economic difficulty, and Daniel helps her a bit as befriending her and her children day by day.

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However, things remain difficult as usual for Daniel and Katie, and we see more of their continuing hardships. When they go to a local food bank, other poor people have already lined up there, and then there comes a sudden heartbreaking moment when Katie finds herself succumbing to what she has tried to suppress for days. While you may be surprised by that, the food bank workers are neither shocked nor outraged at all, probably because they have handled such a situation like that many times before.

While never overlooking its main characters’ harsh reality, the movie is occasionally warm and humorous, and Dave Johns, a veteran stand-up comedian who makes a theatrical movie debut here in this film, gives an engaging performance as a likable guy who will not easily step back in front of obstacles. While being effortlessly amusing from time to time, Johns is very good when he subtly conveys us the frustration gradually accumulated inside his character, and we come to empathize with Daniel more especially when he eventually decides that enough is enough. He surely demonstrates in front of others that he will not be ignored at any chance, and we cannot help but root for him during that pivotal moment.

The other performers in the movie look as unadorned and realistic as Johns. Hayley Squires is believable as a woman with a very few options for her hard, messy life, and she is simply devastating when her character comes to make a certain choice for providing a stable place for her children. As Blake’s young black neighbor, Kema Sikazwe brings some cheer to the movie at times, and young performers Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan are also impressive in their natural rapport with Johns and Squires.

“I, Daniel Blake” may not be Roach’s best work, but it is as excellent as we can expect from a master filmmaker who has consistently shown lots of care and attention to his ordinary but memorable working class characters. Although the movie stumbles and then becomes a little contrived during its third act, that flaw does not seriously hurt its several powerful moments, and it surely earns the sentiments palpably felt during its quiet but moving finale.

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