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I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake, 2016

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower who is out of work due to a heart condition. While in line at the center where he must appeal for his out-of-work benefits he meets young single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two children. As the indifferent social services system grinds both of them down through a series of humiliations, Daniel bonds with the family.

This is one of those films that just squeezes you by the heart for every single second of its runtime.

There are many films--dramas, dark comedies--that portray the frustration and absurdity of trying to navigate a government system that is in theory meant to help those most in need.

What this film does so well is show the way that a system can fail not because all of the people in it are cold, indifferent, or on a power trip, but rather because the system itself is disjoint and even those who do want to help are hampered by regulation or other restrictions. In one sequence that is somehow uplifting and crushing at the same time, Daniel tries to fill out an online job application form at a public library. Forced to beg help from various other patrons, Daniel does get help but is still unable to complete the form. When a library worker tries to help him, she is pulled away and reprimanded by her superior for setting a precedent.

Katie's struggles are just as harrowing to watch. It becomes clear very quickly that she is not eating so that she can give the kids bigger portions---always claiming that she "ate earlier." This all comes to a head when, while shopping at a food pantry, she suddenly breaks down and begins to eat food straight from a can. While the pantry worker is kind in response and Daniel also comforts her, it is humiliating. Later, we learn that Katie's children are being teased because word of Katie's breakdown has made it to the school. Desperate for money, Katie is eventually offered work, and I'm sure that you can guess the nature of that work.

The one thing I had mixed feelings about here was the almost uniformly positive portrayal of all of the people in the lower class. While it is true that people in poverty do really tend to stick together and show a lot of generosity---because you never know when you might be the one needing $10 to keep the lights on, or a ride to work because your car won't start--it's also true that people who are desperate sometimes resort to desperate means. There is a range of personalities on display when it comes to the bureaucrats (from the kind and helpful to the snide and demeaning), but not so for the "little people".

The lead performances from Johns and Squires are both incredibly good. An emotional watch, but a good one.