Film Review: Happy-Go-Lucky

Mike Leigh's latest is a satisfying crowd-pleaser...provided you're able to tolerate the main character, of course.

Meet Poppy, a relentlessly upbeat public-school teacher in North London who literally begins every day with a smile. But her positive attitude isn't an act or psychiatric drug-assisted mask to hide some dark inner turmoil. No, Poppy is an even rarer creature: a genuinely happy person. In fact, it's hard to imagine a situation where she wouldn't be able to look on the bright side of things. House burns down? Less stuff to have to move into a new flat! Breaks a leg? Finally, some time to catch up on some reading! Boyfriend sleeps with another girl? She's a better fit for him anyway. And don't even try to make her cry or let loose with a stream of curse words. No matter how rude you are to her, she'll give you a grin and a compliment without breaking her stride. All she wants is to leave your day a little brighter and your heart a little lighter than before you crossed her path. If you're intent on staying gloomy, no worries; at least she tried to spread some good cheer and...oh look, the sun is shining and those roses are in bloom! Isn't life grand?

Poppy isn't a real person, of course, but the beauty of Mike Leigh's new film Happy-Go-Lucky is that she seems like she could and should exist outside of the movie theatre. That's a testament to both Leigh's naturalistic filmmaking style and the marvelous star turn by Sally Hawkins, who captures Poppy in all her fabulous, frustrating glory. In many ways, Happy-Go-Lucky is a companion piece to Leigh's acclaimed 1993 drama Naked, with Hawkins giving as fierce and committed a performance as David Thewlis so memorably did in that earlier film. The key difference is that Thewlis' character Johnny was a brutish misanthrope, a personality type that attracts film buffs (particularly twenty-something guys who worship at the altar of Scorsese) like moths to a flame. Poppy, on the other hand, is warm and friendly, which, ironically, makes her more difficult to like, at least at first. Maybe it's a New York thing, but it's easy to view overly nice people with suspicion, particularly if they seem to want nothing in return for their kindness. Indeed, some viewers may never warm up to Poppy and spend the whole film wishing that someone would say something to knock that kooky smile right off her face and make her as cynical as the rest of us.

For those folks, Happy-Go-Lucky's nearly two-hour running time will probably be sheer torture, particularly since there's no real plot to speak of. The film essentially follows Poppy through a few months in her life, chronicling her encounters with a steady stream of friends, family members, acquaintances and the occasional stranger. That said, there is one relationship which does act as a kind of narrative spine and that's the one she shares with her driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), a rude, nasty, emotionally constipated man who is in every way Poppy's direct opposite. Even though it's clear from the first lesson that this arrangement will never work out, Poppy won't change teachers and Scott can't bring himself to insist that she be assigned to someone else. He claims it's because he's never given up on a student, but it's obvious that he's obsessed with this kooky woman who never, ever stops smiling. For her part, Poppy views Scott as another person she might be able to help, no matter how much he resists. So for an hour every week, they climb behind the wheel of Scott's car and attempt to find some kind of middle ground while he teaches her the rules of the road.

It's in these scenes—which are beautifully realized by Leigh and brilliantly acted by Hawkins and Marsan—that the movie snaps into focus. Happy-Go-Lucky is, by design, the lightest film Leigh has made in quite some time, but the Poppy/Scott dynamic gives it an emotional weight that doesn't sink in fully until after the film ends. A master of verite-like character studies, Leigh slowly but surely reveals the individual behind his heroine's broad smile and cackling laugh without ever telling us how we should feel about her. (But if you do exit the theatre still believing she's just a bubbly bobble-head, you clearly haven't been paying attention.) Like Poppy herself, Happy-Go-Lucky is deceptively simple, thoroughly charming and always surprising.

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