When Happy-Go Lucky begins we meet Poppy, a single woman in her 30s, who has just discovered a new bookstore and does her darnedest to charm the store clerk with her goofy persona — despite the fact he's completely annoyed and hardly acknowledges her. This opening struck me as awfully precarious and could have easily bombed due to Poppy's perkiness, but it doesn't.
And that's because the star of the movie, Sally Hawkins, who plays the optimistic Poppy, is so brilliant in this role, and this would-be cringe-worthy moment successfully launches one of the sweetest movies I've seen in a long time. To see why I loved it so,
The movie is essentially plotless and is more of a character study, focusing on a woman whose outlook on life remains defiantly sunny despite the world's inevitable darkness and sorrow. Poppy has a great life: a wonderful roommate Zoe (played by Alexis Zegerman, a young actress I hope we see more often), a great job teaching kids, and eventually a sweet guy. She's so dang upbeat I almost felt resentful of her and I thought I'd be in for one long, perky, brightly-colored slog. But the effect is just the opposite because beneath the froth and the lightheartedness something much more substantive lies at the heart of this movie. Something that addresses much of the human experience at once: sadness, longing, confusion, and hopefulness.
As we watch Poppy go about her life as a single gal in the city, we see her interact with various people that make up her world including a high-strung driving instructor named Scott whom she's hired to give her lessons. Scott is played by Eddie Marsan, another actor in this film who gives an amazing performance. At first I wanted to write Scott off as a grumpy guy who Poppy rubs the wrong way, but each new scene in the cramped little car gradually reveals that he is a complicated and disturbed paranoid. There are many things he says and does to Poppy along the way that would make any other person request a new teacher, but instead of feeling frightened or irritated by him, she gives him the benefit of the doubt and often challenges his views.
It's in these scenes that we see Poppy as more than just a regular happy woman and as someone who, even in the face of bizarre and awful situations, can't help but understand that all that awfulness comes from a place she can probably understand. In her eyes Scott isn't someone to toss away as a racist nut-job, but a person who is so clearly in pain.
The movie drives at this empathy, which extends to everyone from discontented married couples in the burbs to a mentally ill homeless man in the city. Rather than express disdain for the choices people make, Happy-Go-Lucky seeks to examine the things all of us have in common in a way that rings true. I couldn't help but see my own life reflected back at me as I watched Poppy with her friends and family and colleagues. To me that was so refreshing — a movie that depicted life as it is, instead of as a fantasy and that still gave me warm fuzzies. What an accomplishment! Director Mike Leigh has created something magical and irresistible in this little movie that is nothing short of brilliant. I recommend you rush to see it.
Photos courtesy of Miramax