Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh's 'Happy-Go-Lucky'Success Stories:
Happy-Go-Lucky (Miramax)
Religulous (Lionsgate)
Ballast (Alluvial/Required Viewing)

One Brit edged out another, as RockNRolla, Guy Ritchie's zippy yet utterfully forgettable "return to form" Brit crime flick, narrowly claimed the #1 spot among limited releases, according to estimates compiled by Box Office Mojo. To my mind, though, Mike Leigh's much riskier Happy-Go-Lucky ($20,000 per screen at four theaters) is the surprise winner in the independent world, with a strking lead performance by Sally Hawkins as a preternaturally cheerful schoolteacher who sounds as though she could set teeth on edge as easily as she warms hearts. I'm curious but wary. The film will expand wider on Friday; if you've seen it, is it a tonic for difficult times or a passive aggressive form of torture?

Speaking of possibly unpleasant experiences, I'm also surprised by the excellent returns for Larry Charles' Religulous. The doc has earned more than $6.7 million in just two weeks; A. J. Schnack of All these wonderful things points out that it's the first doc since Michael Moore's Sicko "to score back-to-back multi-million dollar weekends." I grew tired of Bill Maher's smirking, self-righteous ridicule years ago, but perhaps I'm in the minority. If you've seen the doc, are you a big fan of Maher? Or is it the subject matter that made it a must-see?

Lance Hammer's Ballast deserves a big hand. Not only did Hammer write and direct a highly-praised drama, he decided to take on distribution duties as well, opening it at a single Manhattan theater the weekend before last. The earnings were not stunning, but very respectable for picture without stars. It expands to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Philadelphia and St. Louis before the end of October, according to indieWIRE. Will you check out Ballast if it opens near you?