The financial instability at the heart of I, Daniel Blake makes the film stand out of its place in time. Its lead characters, Dan (Geoff Johns) and Katie (Hayley Squires), could be characters in Thatcher-era London, looking for work but unable to get it, or they could be hunting for jobs in a Britain beset by economic woes after its recent exit from the European Union. Dan takes it all with a weary half-smile on his face, laughing at his suffering at the hands of the British benefits system, and director Ken Loach has us laugh along with him.
Dan is a recently-widowed carpenter who’s recovering from a heart attack when he finds out that his disability benefits have not been renewed. It may have something to do with his abrasive nature on a phone conversation with one of the many health care professionals he is forced to encounter in the film. As he fights with looming poverty by trying to get his benefits back, he attempts to navigate the social welfare system, with comical results. The farcical nature of Dan’s travails is mostly technological; the manager at the benefits office tells him that they’re “digital by default”, to which Dan retorts that he’s “pencil by default”. Time and time again, Dan attempts to send in the electronic forms that the office requires, but he’s bested by frozen screens, invisible cursors, and miserable errors. He’s in a Kafkaesque nightmare of ones and zeroes.
Dan encounters Katie and her two children as the family navigates the financial pressures of moving to a new city with no income. The four of them form an unlikely family of their own, one that tries to bands together to weather out this rough patch. Hayley Squires is magnificent as the single mother trying to keep her head above water for her children, but she can’t completely escape the harsh reality that threatens to tear her to pieces. In one particularly devastating scene, she visits a food donation center and tries to discreetly eat a can of beans with her bare hands out of punishing starvation. Squires plays the scene’s immediate aftermath with a look of confusion on her face; it’s clear that her body unconsciously took over her mind.
A lot of I, Daniel Blake strays much too close to being "poverty porn," with a familiar narrative of a downward spiral into penury. What rescues it from disappearing down that well-trodden path is the humanity with which director Ken Loach treats his characters. When Dan takes a can of spray paint and defaces side of the public benefits office, his small, momentary victory is one that is richly deserved. I, Daniel Blake might play to the crowd, but it plays Loach’s swan song at full volume.