If you live within the UK, you’ll have no doubt seen more than a handful of inflammatory headlines about Eastern European migrant workers. Whilst much of the skewed narrative centres around the jobs they are “taking”, very little is said about the harsh realities of the lives they are living and the conditions in which they are working.

If there is a “European Dream”, it’s not present here in writer-director Piotr Domalewski’s I Never Cry, which is every bit an expose of the plight of migrant workers as it is a family drama. Award winning Domalewski – whose debut film, Silent Night, scooped up just about every grand jury prize in the Polish film festival circuit – creates a stark, almost nihilistic portrayal of the migrant experience, reminiscent of the films of Ken Loach or Shane Meadows.

The film opens with Olka (Zofia Stafiej, making her impressive debut) valiantly trying to pass her driving test on the third attempt, only for it to result in a brawl between her examiner and another driver. Her phone also rings throughout the test, with a ringtone that declares “fucking police” over and over again. But this light humour is by no means indicative of the tone of the rest of the film.

Typical teen Olka suddenly finds herself as the ‘head of the family’ after her father passes away in a freight container accident. As the only one in her family who can speak English, she must travel to the Republic of Ireland, where her father was working, to retrieve his body. She is forced to swap daydreams of buying a car and swapping nudes with an admirer for the grim realities of migrant working life within the European Union.

Zofia Stafiej, in the lead role, carries the entire film effortlessly, holding her own against some big names in Polish cinema. She is constantly in motion, storming into offices or breaking into locked doors. She strides purposefully everywhere – fueled by a mixture of adolescent rage and grief. She veers from protective and loving, when it comes to helping her disabled brother, to fiery and demanding, when it comes to seeking the truth. Stafiej’s performance allows tiny glimpses at the character’s vulnerability and is a beautifully layered and nuanced debut. There are no cliches here about “journeys” (literal or emotional) or “coming of age” – even when Olka is acting like a typical, sullen teenager. Instead, everything feels raw and unstable.

The cinematography and lack of colour are where the film draws most its obvious comparisons to the British Social Realism movement. Tight, slightly shaky, close ups of Olka’s face permeate the film, drawing you in to her experiences. Only Dublin’s Temple Bar shows any signs of life and colour – the sea, the houses, the offices are all swathes of grey, blue and brown. Actors and extras are huddled up against the elements or pressed up against the walls in a long queue. Quite frankly, everyone looks worn out and miserable. Hania Rani’s original score adds weight to this sense of weariness and frustration. However, there are moments of typically Irish-Polish dark humour. There’s Olka’s horror when all cigarettes cost €20 and the funny back-and-forth with the funeral director about the weight of her father’s body. These lighter touches are just enough to break up the otherwise unrelenting grimness.

As the plot slowly begins to unravel, Olka learns more about her father’s life in Ireland. Having worked away for so long, he is like a stranger to her and we see her searching for clues amongst his wallet, his locker and his colleagues. She is desperate to know more of him than just the money he sends back home every month. “It’s hard to get to know someone who’s not really here,” his foreman offers, apologetically. And it is in this narrative strand that Domalewski really hammers home the socio-political commentary. Cramped living quarters; unsafe working conditions; the pressure cut corners in order to earn more; abusive bosses reminding their workers how ‘lucky’ they are to be employed. It’s all laid bare for us to see through Olka’s eyes – each discovery more tragic than the previous. There are two tragedies here – those who are living and working in bleak conditions in search of a better life and those who are left behind, growing up without the guiding presence of their parent.

The relatively open ending of the film suggests that history may well repeat itself. Despite having any glamorous notions of living and working abroad well and truly stripped away, you still get the sense that Olka has a bit of fire in her belly. She wants to make something of herself – if only to pass her driving test and afford a second hand car. Domalewski offers up a distinctly gloomy impression of life as an economic migrant within the EU – one that, if it weren’t for the boldness and black humour of Zofia Stafiej’s Olka, might almost be too unbearable to watch.

Rating: ★★★½

I Never Cry will be released in cinemas nationwide (UK & Ireland) from 23 July, 2021.