This article offers a reading of Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake, a fictionalised account of experiences of the UK welfare system in conditions of austerity. We consider, firstly, the significant challenge the film poses to dominant figurations of welfare recipients under austerity, through a focus on vulnerability to state processes. We follow with a reading of some of the film’s interventions in relation to reciprocity, drawing on the important trajectories of care, community and resistance that the film renders visible through the collective stories of the major characters. Finally, we conclude with reflections on citizenship, subject narratives and alternative imaginaries of ‘deservingness’. Our article offers an ‘against the grain’ reading (hooks, 1996; Wearing, 2013) of the film, highlighting some of the radical possibilities of the more minor moments, character arcs and subject positionalities within the film’s central narrative of Daniel’s experiences in the shadow of the steadily crumbling welfare state.