I, Daniel Blake

The British seem to live for bureaucracy. Their fondness for queueing is known far and wide, and if things like Yes Minister, In the Loop and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are to be believed, they also love rules and paperwork. But apparently even the British have their limits, and I, Daniel Blake is a terrific and terrifying look at them.

Daniel (Dave Johns) used to be a carpenter, but then he had a heart attack that forced him to stop working for a while. He had been getting the British equivalent of workers’ compensation until some government stooge decided that he was healthy enough to work, despite multiple doctors saying that was very much not the case. So now he’s in a bureaucratic nightmare where he can’t work, doesn’t have any income, has exhausted his savings, and he has fallen through the cracks of a system staffed by people very intent on following the rules to the letter and that actually punishes people who try to use reason and compassion.

But Daniel isn’t alone. During one of his many trips to the Department of Not Helping People, he encounters Katie (Hayley Squires). She’s new to the area, a single mom with two children (Daisy and Dylan, played by Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan), and she’s also having trouble keeping her head above water. She can’t find a job and can’t get any help. She managed to get a run-down apartment but can’t afford electricity, and soon she won’t even be able to buy food. Daniel befriends her, and he’s able to help her fix up the apartment, show her some tricks for making do without all of the essentials, and take care of her kids while she goes out looking for work. But things aren’t getting brighter for either of them.

This is one of the most anxiety-inducing films I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s not quite as over the top as something like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but it feels just as bleak and even more realistic and relatable, and it’s easier to connect with the characters on a deeper level. It’s pure drama without any humor or suspense to lighten the mood, and while there’s plenty of stupidity to go around, it’s not played for laughs. It’s got a message, and I expect that message gets through just as well to us Americans as it does to the British.

And to make the film even more horrific, there are several scenes in which Daniel, very much a pencil and paper guy, needs to use a computer and can’t figure it out, so he turns to others for help. I’ve been lucky enough in my life to have never had serious concern about where my next meal would come from, but I’ve been on the receiving end of many clueless people asking for technical assistance while being firmly committed to remaining clueless. These scenes got my heart rate up even more than anything else in the film, which is really saying something.

I, Daniel Blake is phenomenal, but I’m honestly not sure I’d recommend watching it if the subject matter hits too close to home. You can tell yourself that a horror film is only a movie, but if you’ve got some of these real-life concerns going into the film, they’ll probably just get amplified by watching it. Maybe immediately following it with something light, stupid, and fun will take the edge off.