'Happy-Go-Lucky" is a movie I shouldn't have liked, let alone loved. Mike Leigh's latest working-class dramedy is centered around the sort of person I spend most of my daily existence trying to avoid, but can't. You know the type -- the irritating, hopelessly perky person who wakes up on the right side of the bed, hits you with jaunty words of optimism and always looks on the bright side of life. Heck, some of you may even work with these people. (I know I do!)
The person in this instance is the aptly named Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a giddy primary schoolteacher we first see riding her bike around the streets of London, waving at folks as she glides by, beaming smile stretching from ear to ear. Yeah, you just know this gal's going to be a handful.
Just as you'd expect, Poppy is too cheerful to let anything get her down, even when the bike she was riding minutes ago gets jacked. ("I didn't even get to say goodbye," she mutters.) Her sunny disposition is a sharp contrast to the crankiness provided by her circle, which includes best friend/roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and Poppy's little sis, Suzy (Kate O'Flynn).
You immediately sense that "Happy" is going to be about our heroine coming in contact with conflicts that could easily make her as miserable as the rest of us. (This is a Mike Leigh movie, after all.)
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Sure enough, Leigh hits her with several attitude-souring situations. The biggest is the weekly driving lessons she takes with an instructor (Eddie Marsan) who can best be described as Poppy's polar opposite: bitter, dead-serious and aggressively cynical. For some reason, Poppy is amused by the grumpy Gus, and continues to take lessons from him. She must figure if anyone can turn that angry, racist, antisocial frown upside down, it's gotta be her.
While some of you may be wondering whether this woman is either oblivious, naive or simply a dolt, Leigh makes a marvelous case that people like her are the most grounded people around.
Yes, Poppy can be cheerful to the point of nauseating. But she can also be serious when the time calls for it, such as when she expertly investigates the troubled home life of a bullying pupil.
She's the sort of gal who can look terror and uncertainty in the face -- as she does in a rather superfluous scene where she interacts with a mentally unstable homeless man -- and come out of it convinced that, to borrow another Leigh title, life is sweet.
Leigh certainly hints that Poppy has seen enough horror and evil in her lifetime (in one scene, she tells a co-worker about her travels teaching children in Third World countries) to make the daily trials and tribulations people go through appear trivial.
While the cast works quite uniformly in dishing out scenes full of snappy, droll dialogue (usually drummed up from Leigh's trademark practice of having actors create their characters in improv sessions before filming), Hawkins may end up giving the most underappreciated performance of the year as Poppy. She adds layers to a character you might assume would be just an annoying twit. With her ceaseless joviality -- often wearing garish clothes that are just as loud and outrageous as she is (watch her stick out like a multicolored sore thumb when she takes a flamenco class occupied by mostly black-wearing dancers -- she's a ray of sunshine in a sea of darkness -- sometimes quite literally.
After spending a couple of hours with Poppy in her glass-half-full universe, I realized why I love "Happy-Go-Lucky" so much. This isn't a movie about someone I wish I could avoid. It's a movie about someone I wish I could be.