Ken Loach's quietly furious I, Daniel Blake will likely jolt you with its depiction of paperwork, on-hold music and the long-wait rigmarole a widowed English woodworker endures while trying to secure the benefits he's due after a heart attack. The setting is Newcastle, and the wheels that grind him are the National Health's, but the awed frustration translates. Loach is taking aim at all bureaucracies whose impersonal character is for the bureaucrats more feature than bug. It's not the overworked "healthcare professional" sitting across from Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) who is denying the claim he's entitled to -- it's the point-system questionnaire whose hands truly are dirty.
Blake gets caught in a loophole: After his heart attack, his doctors say he shouldn't work, but the questionnaire concludes that he can work and therefore is ineligible for the benefits he needs to survive.
Loach often lets us soak in soiling confrontations, shot and performed with matter-of-fact naturalism. Once in a while, Blake fights back, most movingly when he witnesses a broke single mother getting denied help. The mom, Katie (Hayley Squires), befriends him. A scene of her sneaking a bite from a tin can she's just been handed at a food pantry is among 2016's most moving.
While Blake presses his case with the bureaucrats, Katie is tempted toward the desperate life choices that the movies have always warned young women against. Loach treats this like every other choice his people make as they try to survive in the margins: She does what she has to. Neorealism lives: It's rare that a film this angry is also this empathetic, this warm, this moving, this given to silence and companionship.
Ken LoachDave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana ShannPaul LavertyRebecca O'BrienIFC Films