You've probably already seen Wonder Woman. And if you haven't, you ought to. Gal Gadot kicks ass. The film is a transformative and long overdue installment in the superhero genre — it stars a woman and is also directed by one, go figure — but it remains, in the end, a big, messy superhero movie. It's got your epic clash, your godly powers brought to bear on the munitions of a historical conflict (here WWI), and your inevitable crumbs scattered throughout the script for inevitable future sequels. But it's redemptive too. Gadot is every bit the symbol she's meant to be. Strutting in slo-mo through the no-man's land of WWI's horrific battlefields, she is as superheroic as anything the genre has yet produced. In fact, Wonder Woman is the first whiff of competence and pleasure from the sloppy, stupid D.C. film universe. Great summer fare.
I, Daniel Blake, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee, is Wonder Woman's opposite in form and content, but it, too, charts the story of a heroic figure. Dan (Dave Johns) is a carpenter living in Newcastle. He's a widower in his late 50s or early 60s, and he's recovering from a heart attack that has kept him out of work. His battle is with the government of the United Kingdom, specifically the local employment offices. He's been denied assistance based on the recommendation of a professional health care worker (or on the rigidity of the forms on which she relied) and is told he must actively seek work if he wants unemployment benefits, though he's been told by his doctors that he can't safely return to work.
This sets up a familiar bureaucratic hoop-jumping routine, the ridiculousness of which Blake never grows weary of remarking upon: To receive benefits, he must apply for jobs, knowing that he can't accept them due to his condition, all while trying to appeal the initial decision which denied him benefits in the first place. He is constantly belittled, dehumanized and ignored at the local office, routinely forced to hold for hours on the phone or instructed to perform tasks online, a prospect which terrifies him. When he tries to go off-script, to tell the government workers his situation, they direct him back to official questions or procedures. This is captured starkly during the opening credits sequence. Later, when one sympathetic worker tries to extend a helping hand, she is chastised by a superior. The film unsparingly shows this routine as a calculated effort by the government to make claims-seekers so miserable that they simply give up.
Meantime, Dan befriends a young single mother named Katie (Hayley Squires) who is likewise dealing with these intractable powers. She's recently moved from London and is trying to make her new apartment a home for her two children. To save money, she turns off the heat, foregoes meals, and shoplifts deodorant and pads. Dan sees in Katie a person more down on her luck than even he is, and helps out the family in any way he can. In the movie's most heartbreaking scene, Katie, who hasn't eaten for days, is taken to a public food bank to get groceries. She tries to discreetly crack open a canned good and breaks down sobbing when she is discovered.
"Don't be ashamed," Dan tells her, kneeling at her side. "It's not you. It's not you." This is absolutely gut-wrenching stuff, and it's one of three or four moments where this occasionally dreary picture screams through the screen, "Something must be done about this!"