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      I, Daniel Blake Review

      I, Daniel Blake poster

      I, Daniel Blake

      Steven Zeitchik, Chicago Tribune

      Los Angeles Times

      The honor and struggle of the working class are a staple of auteur cinema -- in modern days, via some of the works of the Dardenne brothers and Mike Leigh and, in earlier times, with classics such as "The Bicycle Thief."

      But few directors do neorealism like Ken Loach. And few Loach movies arrive at a more propitious moment than the British director's latest, "I, Daniel Blake."

      The surprising recipient of last year's Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, "Blake" comes as income inequality has factored into a presidential election and driven various forms of populism across Europe.

      "I, Daniel Blake" follows its title character (Dave Johns), a carpenter somewhere between good-natured and curmudgeonly, who after suffering a heart attack is told he can't work again.

      This would seem like not much of a personal crisis in a country with a relatively strong social safety net. But Daniel is just fit enough to work -- says an ominously named "decision-maker" at the welfare office -- that he can't collect disability. And he's not nearly looking hard enough for that work, says another decision-maker, to garner unemployment. So he's left to navigate a maze that's as Kafka-esque as it is unfair.

      As this unfolds, Daniel, a 60-ish widower with no children, meets a young single mother named Katie (Hayley Squires), befriending her and her two kids. Katie faces similar unfairness as Daniel. She also has the same tough skin and gentle spirit as he does, and the two bond.

      If the lines here can be a little too sharply drawn -- nearly everyone in the system is bad, and all the everyday people pure and hardy -- the movie sells the idea with deep wellsprings of humanity and sparkling performances. Johns offers heart without sap in the title role. But the film's standout may be Squires, a previously unknown 28-year-old who in interviews has spoken about her own hardscrabble upbringing. Several scenes are minor-key dramatic showstoppers, not least one at a food bank involving Squires.

      The actress said such scenes were effective in part due to Loach's decision to shoot chronologically. By giving out the script to actors only in sections, they didn't have the burden of knowing that in 10 or 15 days, they would have to get to a particular place emotionally.

      "Blake" is, at heart, an indictment of a bureaucracy that is at best unfeeling and at worst actively oppressing the poor with cutbacks in social-welfare programs.

      MPAA rating: R (for language).

      Running time: 1:40

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