Kris Hitchen and Katie Proctor in “Sorry We Missed You.” (Joss Barratt/Zeitgeist Films)
Movie critic

Rating: (3 stars)

Over the course of an enormously productive half-century career, British filmmaker Ken Loach has been one of cinema’s most reliable narrators of the human experience. His 2016 film “I, Daniel Blake” delivered a devastating critique of the privatized public sector, with Loach’s portrait of a communal safety net disintegrating before the eyes of the film’s heart-rending title character.

Loach evinces the same powers of observation — and his shrewd eye for spotting unknown talent — in “Sorry We Missed You,” in which a working-class family tries to find autonomy and financial security amid the predations of the gig economy. With its depiction of razor-thin margins (commercial and personal), this absorbing and ultimately shattering portrayal of the costs of a late-capitalist system obsessed with convenience, efficiency and nanosecond precision couldn’t be more timely. At a moment when nearly everyone is relying on e-commerce to get by — while being forced to renegotiate the social contract at its most literal — “Sorry We Missed You” serves as a grim reminder that the contract was rigged from the start.

As the film opens, Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) is interviewing for a job with a package delivery service, touted by the boss (Ross Brewster) as a self-starter’s dream. Dazzled by promises of independence and generous daily payouts, Ricky agrees to buy one of the company’s white vans, a gambit that immediately puts him into debt to his employer. Thus begins an increasingly breathless race to perform and, finally, just to keep up. While Ricky puts in more and more hours, his wife (Debbie Honeywood) puts in her own hours as a home health-care worker, keeping track of their children (Rhys Stone and Katie Proctor) via texts and voice mails.

Working from a script by frequent collaborator Paul Laverty, Loach ratchets up the tension with nerve-racking intensity Although the film is set in the dispiriting environs of Newcastle’s most featureless neighborhoods, the filmmaker takes care to inject his own brand of warmth and humor: Fans of Loach’s delightful 2009 comedy “Looking For Eric” will particularly appreciate a hilariously profane argument between Ricky, a die-hard Manchester United fan, with one of his customers.

The putative subject of “Sorry We Missed You” is the surveillance economy and the current state of labor. (“What happened to the eight-hour day?” a former union organizer laments at one point.) But the heart and soul of the film is Ricky’s family, which comes dangerously close to fraying beyond repair. With her alert, spirited performance, Proctor is the film’s breakout star, her young Liza Jane observing the chaos engulfing her parents with barely contained distress.

As small catastrophes cascade into bigger ones, “Sorry We Missed You” takes on the usual contours of a Ken Loach film. He’s too honest to deliver false happy endings, but he doesn’t slather on the melodrama for sentimentality’s sake. In this unsparing but deeply compassionate film, viewers get a chance to see the fatigue, stress and bewilderment of modern life for what they are: not the regrettable side effects of market-driven progress, but the results of cynicism and greed, and the unfathomable human cost of wanting what we want, right now.

Unrated. Available April 3 via streaming at theavalon.org, afisilver.afi.com and cinemaartstheatre.com. Contains obscenity. 100 minutes.