With his latest effort, Happy-Go-Lucky, director Mike Leigh takes a departure from the dark mood evoked by most of his films with a charming little tale about an eternally optimistic school teacher, Poppy (Sally Hawkins, previously seen in smaller roles in Leigh's films Vera Drake and All or Nothing), who breezes through life, always seeing the glass half full. Poppy is one of those people who never seems to get down about anything. She smiles at surly strangers, strikes up conversations with people who'd clearly prefer to be left alone, and puts a positive spin on everything.
When her bike is stolen, Poppy shrugs it off and decides to take driving lessons; her driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan, also a Leigh alum from Vera Drake) is Poppy's polar opposite. Some of the film's best moments are when she's interacting with Scott and we have the dramatic tension of his simmering anger to contrast with Poppy's perkiness. Scott is intensely uptight, seems to hate everyone and everything, and adheres firmly to the belief that if only everyone would follow a strict set of rules (his rules, of course), all would be well. Naturally, the two clash.
Poppy's personality -- and her insistence on wearing "inappropriate," sexy, high-heeled boots for driving lessons -- grates on Scott. Nonplussed by Scott's gruff and often bizarre outbursts, Poppy seeks only to empathize with and understand him. She seems to view Scott as an overgrown child who could be helped to be a happier person, if only she could find the key to his troubles. But grown men are not little boys whose hurts can be fixed by a kind and understanding teacher; the soul-wounds underlying Scott's personality issues run too deep for a brief encounter with a perky schoolteacher to fix. Their scenes together, though, are quite funny; Marsan is given some of the best riffs in the film, and delivers his lines with an excellent sense of comedic timing.
The film doesn't follow much of a narrative arc; instead, Leigh uses his typical "kitchen sink realism" method of filmmaking (although less bleakly so than in his previous works) to simply follow Poppy through the mundane events of the ordinary life of a working-class girl. We go along with Poppy as she makes bird masks with her students and then leads them in a raucous cacophony of squeaks and squawks; as she goes out for night of drinking and dancing with her girlfriends; as she takes driving and flamenco lessons.
While Hawkins is always at the forefront, it's often the people around Poppy who drive the film's flow and dramatic tension, as if Leigh intended Poppy to be a catalyst to explore both the reactions of others when faced with relentless optimism, and Poppy's own response when faced with tense or uncomfortable situations. Poppy often feels rather like a small child who plugs her ears and sings loudly to block out the scary sounds of parents fighting or schoolmates bullying; her cheeriness, in a sense, is a shield against an unfriendly world.
There's actually quite a bit more going on under the surface of the film than there seems on an initial glance; Poppy's tendency to always see the good side of everyone sometimes leads her to be unaware of when she's pushing too far, or putting herself in a dangerous situation. This could make her seem naively shallow, or perhaps simply so solipsistic that she lacks the boundaries to sense when she's crossing lines with others, but then Leigh deftly reels her back in with subtle moments of awareness.
A lengthy scene between Poppy and a homeless man feels like it drags the plot a bit; I had an interesting conversation in line with some folks about this scene, in which one of them pondered whether Leigh intended that scene to be a "Beckett moment" -- that is, a moment when nothing much seems to happen, but it gives us pause to ponder before the flow moves forward again. Whether you think that's good or bad depends, I suppose, on how you feel about Beckett.
For me, though, the crux of that scene is when Poppy suddenly breaks out of trying to make a connection with someone who's clearly not there, looks around, and realizes she's perhaps put herself in a dangerous situation. It's a humanizing moment for the character, where she breaks for a moment from her cheery facade to see the potential worm in the apple; it makes her suddenly seem less a caricature of the eternally optimistic person, adding some necessary and welcome depth to Poppy as a person.
All in all, I quite liked Happy-Go-Lucky; it's certainly one of Leigh's more mainstream-friendly films, and will appeal to moviegoers beyond the dress-all-in-black, gloom-and-doom cinephile crowd, while still retaining enough of the Leigh touch to satisfy most of the purists. Hawkins is delightful, connecting with the audience when a lesser actress would have been merely cloying in the role. Poppy's insistent cheeriness can sometimes get a bit grating, and I expect viewers with a naturally pessimistic outlook will find her less tolerable than those with a more optimistic nature, but Hawkins is just so breezily charming it's hard to stay annoyed with her for long.
When it comes down to it, Poppy's a likable sort of girl, the kind of friend you'd like to have to cheer you up at the end of a dreary day or hang out with at on a girl's night out; maybe she'd be a bit wearing if you had to be around her all day, every day, but for a little less than two hours, in the middle of a film fest replete with depressing and heavy films -- or your average week of drudgery and routine -- Happy-Go-Lucky is a nice ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds.