Who Needs Social Realism?

As the popularity of social realist cinema wanes, Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers offer possible visions for the genre’s future.

Andrew Lapin
August 12, 2019
Still from Sorry We Missed You. Photo courtesy of Sixteen Films.

AT THIS YEAR’S Cannes Film Festival, the British filmmaker Ken Loach walked the red carpet with one arm in a sling and his other fist held high. You wouldn’t know it from his injury or his weathered frame, but the staunchly socialist octogenarian was at the height of his powers. Sorry We Missed You, Loach’s 26th theatrical narrative feature as a solo director, was about to premiere at the festival, having already caused hundreds of critics’ tear ducts to well at the press screening the previous night. The film came only three years after his last effort, I, Daniel Blake, won the Palme d’Or and went on to become his highest-grossing film in the UK. 

Like most of Loach’s films, Sorry We Missed You is a drama about regular people just trying to get by: in this case, an out-of-work father named Ricky (Kris Hitchen) who becomes a contractor for an Amazon-like parcel delivery service to support his family. The company’s franchising model requires Ricky to purchase his own vehicle, while denying him traditional benefits like paid time off and standardized, stable working hours. The work soon strips him of human dignity; by the film’s end, he’s pissing in a bottle just to finish his byzantine routes on time. It’s a clear indictment of contemporary capitalism, and in this way the film itself—like almost all Loach productions—is its own specific kind of delivery service: It’s an opportunity for the director to sound off on the issues of the day to anyone who will listen. 

So it came as no surprise when, at the Cannes press conference, the cast members sat quietly behind their microphones while reporters treated Loach and his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty like oracles, volleying them with questions about the rise of automation and extremists on the global political stage. If you watched the conference knowing nothing about these men or the setting, you might not have even known there was a movie to discuss.

This situation isn’t uncommon for Loach. His films foreground his own politics to such a degree that, when discussing them, one can’t help but address his views. This is partly by design; Loach makes no secret of his desire to be taken seriously as a political player. In 2014, he even helped found a new party (Left Unity), designed to push the Labour Party further left, and he often uses his platform to comment on Labour politics. When I had the chance to interview him in 2017, less than a month after the Conservative Party had lost its majority in Parliament, he displayed a gift for persistently steering the conversation away from his filmmaking career and back to Labour. 

Given Loach’s place as a self-appointed political figurehead, his more troubling statements tend to make news as though they were coming from an actual politician. These include his criticism of the European Union in the lead-up to the 2016 Brexit vote, when he offered a merely lukewarm defense against leaving, and his long history of strange comments about the Holocaust (now coming to a head due to a recent BBC investigation of purported antisemitism within Labour’s ranks). But at Cannes, Loach stayed on message. “It’s not capitalism failing,” he said of Sorry We Missed You’s central theme. “It’s capitalism working as it always will.”

FIFTY-TWO YEARS after his filmmaking debut, Loach remains the standard-bearer for the genre of social realism. Such films feature naturalistic stories centered on working-class characters and function as critiques of entrenched economic and social structures. (Though this is Loach’s usual mode, it’s not his only one: for instance, his first Palme winner, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, was a more straightforward period war picture, though still filtered through a leftist analysis.) Loach is one of the few remaining practitioners of the genre on the global stage, but social realism was once far more ubiquitous. The genre thrived in the postwar era, when families across the world were trying and failing to gain a toehold in the middle class. Film, following the lead of Depression-era American photography, turned its gaze to the struggles of the workers who couldn’t see their way up the economic ladder. 

The movement has faded in the last few decades, as filmmaking itself has become a much more nakedly capitalist enterprise; generally, movies about poor people simply aren’t profitable, at least outside of the festival and awards circuits. So lately, we’ve had to take our cinematic political thinking with liberal doses of unreality. In the past few years, Americans have embraced stylized dystopian parables like The Handmaid’s Tale, Sorry to Bother You, and Us—works that address modern American struggles while maintaining a careful aesthetic distance from what they actually look like. 

It’s certainly not a bad thing to have entertainment that recognizes the times in which we live, but the film industry still loses something by relinquishing social realism to the domain of the crotchety old lefties like Loach. When done well, as in last year’s Shoplifters (by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, a modern master of the form), such films can destigmatize poverty and render everyday human misfortune with dramatic complexity, showing that such travails don’t need sweeping cinematic beautification to be meaningful on the big screen. That makes them a valuable culture resource: The genre distills the end results of complicated, destructive policies into human stories that align the audience with those policies’ victims, without the mediation of excessive artifice. Our current documentary boom does a lot of work in this space, too, but crafting original narratives around underrepresented groups confers on them a particular kind of respect.

Do Americans have an equivalent voice in this space? Our own filmmakers as of late have approached the world of social realism gingerly, dressing up stories about poverty with grand, stylistic flourishes so that we never have any doubt we are watching cinema. That was certainly the case for two recent high-profile films, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (a Mexican film made partially with American money and distributed by American entertainment giant Netflix). These films found audiences and awards by pivoting their aesthetics away from lived-in reality in favor of delivering a rich viewing experience with long takes, elaborate setpieces, and stark color schemes (black-and-white in Roma and a bold, high-contrast palette in Moonlight). Other recent US releases—like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, and Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco—are more focused in their social critiques. But they, too, shrug off the stripped-down approach of social realism, which typically seeks only to capture a human struggle, not to dress it up.

Let’s be clear: All five of these movies are masterpieces that deserve to be seen far and wide. And they all did well for arthouse fare, with Roma and Moonlight winning multiple Academy Awards. So if the essence of social realism persists—and reaches an audience—do we even need familiar, stripped-down examples of the genre anymore? Sorry We Missed You makes the case for its form by applying a classical structure to a modern problem, implicitly asserting that the same social ills have persisted for decades. In many ways, it’s the perfect Loach film for the contemporary era—an old-school social realist vision now trained on the unreal horrors of the gig economy. In scene after deeply affecting scene, Ricky bears the brunt of the human problems that arise when his productivity becomes dictated by algorithms—like too-tight delivery windows that require him to illegally park his van and customers who don’t want to sign to acknowledge receipt, preventing him from getting paid. Meanwhile, his hours grow longer, his family’s relationships fray, and he sinks ever deeper into debt and depression. Throughout, the camera dispassionately observes the family’s humiliations; there are no sweeping crane shots here, no slow-motion flashbacks. The musical score is minimal, and no attempt is made to pretty up the dingy Manchester locations where the film is shot. 

But the film’s failures also point to the limitations of Loach’s style. This story is primed to inspire feelings of guilt in its audiences—a guilt that is ultimately self-serving, and which is especially evident in an environment like Cannes, where wealthy showbiz types in elegant gowns stand in lines for hours for the privilege of watching a drama about folks struggling to get by. When the audience feels guilty enough, it is likely to ignore narrative shortcuts that wouldn’t otherwise be tolerated.

One shortcut familiar to social realists is the way Loach removes almost all sense of agency from his characters. They’re victims of circumstance—forced into a terminal cycle of work, debt, family upheaval, and more work—who thus never truly become heroes in the narrative sense, because of their inability to make choices. Loach and Laverty would tell you that such circumstances are the norm for people trapped in the cycle of poverty, which is certainly true. But there should be space in a narrative for both accurate portrayals of an inhumane larger system at work and agency for the characters within that system. Otherwise, what we’re watching seems less like a story than a heavy-handed laundry list of escalating misfortunes, a world where every moment of happiness (a scene where Ricky bonds with his daughter on a delivery route) must later be met with its equal and opposite moment of sadness (Ricky’s supervisor reprimands him for allowing a child into his van). And just in case, after all this, you’re still confused about Loach’s feelings about the gig economy, the film also makes room for a kindly old woman at a bus stop who laments, “Whatever happened to the eight-hour workday?”

This is clunky art. Yet such heavy underlining of a film’s thesis can work with audiences, especially in the UK. Take I, Daniel Blake, which follows the struggles of a middle-aged carpenter with a heart condition who becomes caught in the bureaucratic morass of the British social welfare system. It climaxes with the sudden death of its protagonist just when he’s earned the right to deliver an impassioned appeal for his case, and ends with a eulogy from a friend who declares that “the state drove him to an early grave.” The movie made more than $15 million in the country. British politicians referenced it in debates; audiences made it into a hashtag. With results like that—from the box office to Parliament—why bother with subtlety?

LOACH SHARED this year’s Cannes competition stage with perhaps the only other active filmmaking team who could make a claim to the world’s social-realist crown: the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. This year, the writing-directing duo won a Best Director prize for their 11th narrative film, Young Ahmed, about the radicalization of a 13-year-old biracial Muslim boy. 

Still from Young Ahmed. Photo: Christine Plenus. Photo courtesy of Les Films du Fleueve.

The similarities between the filmmakers are hard to miss. Both Loach and the Dardennes are older white men with left-wing politics (the Dardennes, in their 60s, are the comparatively fresher faces; Loach is 83). Both have built massive filmographies set among working-class communities in their native countries; both employ stripped-down narratives and plainspoken filmmaking styles, favoring amateur actors as part of their bids for authenticity. And both are beloved by Cannes: they’ve competed for the Palme a combined 22 times and are two of only eight directing teams to have ever won it twice.

But Loach and the Dardennes also represent contrasting approaches for the progressive filmmaking community. The question that undergirds the division is as old as the genre itself: Should social realist films use their narratives to lecture audiences, or is it enough to simply tell stories for their own sake? In other words, do we expect filmmakers to be activists themselves, or good storytellers who can point the way to activism?

While Loach embodies the former approach, the Dardennes have spent their careers embracing the latter, mostly to great success. It’s impossible to watch their films without thinking about the social conditions that produced their characters and dilemmas, yet the films are not reducible to their politics. They’re also thrillers, mysteries, romances, and family dramas that appeal to humanity’s innate desire to impose narrative sense on the world; they give their characters agency to make choices. The storytelling is often brutally efficient, with stakes being communicated via casual conversations that can, without warning, turn sinister and revealing: a teenager in The Promise comes to realize his father is viciously mistreating his migrant boarders; a depressed factory worker in Two Days, One Night must convince her coworkers one by one to turn down bonuses in order to keep her job. Little breathing room for the characters means no excess space for Loachian soapbox rants about the state of the world today. 

In line with this approach, Young Ahmed’s narrative doesn’t entirely hinge on the problem of radicalization the way that Sorry We Missed You’s keeps circling back to land blows on the gig economy. Instead, the film follows the slow, uneasy maturity of a surly adolescent who fiercely believes he’s right in every debate—he just happens to have fallen under the influence of a local jihadist imam. The character of Ahmed is so compelling that we are willing to follow him even after he attempts to murder his teacher in the film’s first act. It helps that he’s played by the terrific first-time actor Idir Ben Addi, who gives Ahmed a shy, withdrawn demeanor, allowing us to keep in view the struggling human behind his seething fundamentalist proclamations.

For the Dardennes, building their latest film around a young Muslim protagonist is another sign of the changing times. The filmmakers, seeing that social realism can no longer afford to ignore the roles that race and migration play in class inequality, have shown a desire to tell stories about characters of a variety of ethnicities and from a range of cultural and social backgrounds, all colliding in a changing Western European landscape. Lorna’s Silence follows an Albanian woman who sells herself as a mail-order bride to a Belgian drug addict in order to attain permanent residency in the EU; The Unknown Girl is a whodunit that pivots around the death of an African migrant. By contrast, though Loach has shown the occasional interest in cross-cultural solidarity (notably in Carla’s Song and Bread and Roses), virtually all of his working-class narratives are set in white society. 

But that distinction points to another major debate around social realism in the modern era: namely, who gets to represent which communities’ stories. Young Ahmed was met with mixed reviews from the English-language press, in part due to critics’ skepticism over the Dardennes’ choice to make a movie about a Muslim teen. Should the film eventually make its way stateside (it’s scheduled to make its US premiere at September’s New York Film Festival but, as of this writing, has no American distributor), these debates will certainly resurface. 

Yes, there are questionable choices in Young Ahmed that might stem from the limitations of its creators’ whiteness. Every white character in this tight-knit community somehow understands Ahmed’s internal struggle; none of them display so much as an ounce of Islamophobia even after his well-publicized violent act. When he’s sent to a youth rehabilitation center, he is never once bullied or mistreated, and the support staff is so gentle with him that it strains credulity.

But such missteps don’t undermine the film, which remains a sensitive portrayal of teen angst channeled into the wrong venue. It has tremendous value as a work of social realism precisely because of how well it drills down into the internal dilemmas of its protagonist. Young Ahmed is also, most importantly, a well-crafted narrative on the most basic level—suspenseful, surprising, and true to its characters.

WHERE SOCIAL REALISM will go from here—whether it will follow Loach’s path or the Dardennes’, or fade further into obscurity as would-be torch-carriers like Barry Jenkins and Sean Baker embrace more playful approaches—is impossible to say. Most filmmakers working today grew up on a steady diet of escapist entertainment, and as such are likely to filter their ideas through such lenses. And in a world where they can gain exponentially more critical attention (and profit) from sneaking social criticism into tentpole franchises, genre fare, and serialized television, young creators—particularly in the US, where we have a studio industry desperate for content in the midst of the streaming boom—have little reason to make realistic portrayals of class struggles that won’t make a return on investment. In the film world, the “political allegory” is well on track to replace depictions of the very thing it’s an allegory for.

The genre’s best hope, at least outside of environments like Cannes, might be to openly embrace mass appeal. Andrew Bujalski’s Support The Girls, a broad ensemble comedy from last year that also served up tough truths about the working conditions of the service industry, was the closest recent example of a social realist film that still felt unmistakably modern and American. Just as its heroes reluctantly don tight, cleavage-bearing T-shirts so they can keep their jobs at a Hooters-like sports bar, so too does the movie itself put on the titillating, “fun” uniform of a single-camera TV comedy, with similar beats for character entrances and setup-punchline mechanics, making it more palatable to fans of, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation.

These sorts of carrots have become indispensable ingredients for filmmakers (or American ones, at least) trying to reach audiences who’ve become too overwhelmed by the everyday misery of life in 2019 to watch “sad” movies explain these miseries to them all over again. The shortage of new films in this mold made by directors under 60 seems to suggest that the gritty, no-frills style of social realism is failing to connect with new audiences. And as much as the progressive filmmaking and critical community likes to talk about its desire to see more diversity on-screen, if a genre created especially to showcase such diversity dies, we likely won’t mourn it for long. We will simply find new ways to tell these stories and move on. It’s capitalism working as it always will. 

Andrew Lapin is a film critic, reporter, and podcaster based near Detroit. He regularly reviews movies for NPR and has also written for Vulture, the New York Times, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and Tablet.