4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
There's a fleeting moment in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the aptly-titled and altogether delightful new film from Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake”), when sprightly heroine Poppy (Sally Hawkins) gazes out the window of her North London flat and comments on how beautiful the sky looks. Cut to what she sees: a grayish-blue horizon covered with big, puffy clouds. It's hardly a remarkable sight and, in fact, rather ordinary; just another day in the UK. But Poppy is someone who finds splendor and joy in just about everything. She's blissfully content in her modest little life and this film is essentially a spirited frolic through a slice of it.
Poppy is 30 years old, single, and a teacher at an elementary school. She lives with Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), her best friend from college who teaches in the classroom next door. Poppy's dress matches her demeanor; she's literally colorful from head to toe, like Cyndi Lauper outfitted by Patricia Field. On weekends, she hits the clubs with Zoe and the gals and drinks and dances the night away. She's open-minded, unbiased, and greets everything and everyone with a smile. When we first meet her, she's just had her bicycle stolen, and her reaction is: “I didn't even get to say goodbye. Oh well.” The movie explores the ways in which the people whom Poppy encounters react to her impossibly upbeat attitude. Those who have a similar approach to life, like Zoe, adore her company. Those who accept but don't quite understand her, like school principal Heather (Sylvestra Le Touzel), see her behavior as childlike and nonsensical. And those who take life way too seriously, like Poppy's pregnant an unhappily married sister, Helen (Caroline Martin), find her downright threatening.
It's understandable why some folks would run in the other direction if they saw Poppy coming down the street. Imposing her glee upon others – “Stay happy!” she says, often – she's the kind of person most world-weary adults find exasperating. Her biggest challenge comes in the form of Scott (Eddie Marsan), a somber driving instructor she hires soon after she's rendered bike-less. A repressed loner who's unhealthily consumed by his existence-defining job, Scott is Poppy's polar opposite. Their exchanges, which take place during lessons every Saturday for weeks, create an interesting dichotomy and the story's central conflict. Poppy is faced with other challenges (a bully at school, a back injury, a new romance, a moody instructor at her and Heather's Flamenco dance class) but none so daunting as Scott. The two repeatedly test each other's patience, sometimes humorously, sometimes coarsely, and their relationship eventually reaches a climax that's a powerhouse for both actors, especially Marsan.
As is the case with most of Leigh's films, the performances in “Happy-Go-Lucky” are sublime. Hawkins, who was previously seen in “Vera Drake” and John Curran's “The Painted Veil,” won the Silver Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival for her role as Poppy and may just ride that momentum all the way to Oscar. In what will surely be remembered as her breakthrough, she's a natural, bringing to life a character who's blithe and bubbly but devoted where it counts. Zegerman, who makes her film debut, is just as lovable as Zoe, a tough yet silently sensitive sidekick who we're glad to know is in Poppy's corner.
Leigh's script deserves equal praise. Bright, honest, and lightning-paced, its dialogue surpasses the oft-overworked zingers in “Juno,” many of which seemed too hipster even for angsty Ellen Page. Clearly aided by unbridled actor improv, the conversations truck along with a rapid and believable familiarity among the characters. Even though we aren't immediately aware of the nature of Poppy and Zoe's friendship, the film entrusts that we'll stick around to find out, and we trust it right back. Its words are often light but not superficial, airy but not air-headed, and, when necessary, reach for profundity. During one of their lessons, Scott, infuriated with Poppy, insists that she “act like an adult.” Poppy, looking at the strange and miserable “grown-up” next to her, replies, “What, like you?”
Which brings me back to the view from the window. It's one of the few scenes in which we're given the opportunity to see the world directly from Poppy's eternally optimistic perspective. Am I wrong in calling her vista “ordinary” and “unremarkable?” Do her disappointment-resistant eyes see something mine don't? Am I just another cynic who sees the sky as half gray instead of half blue? Perhaps. With “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Leigh's message is clear: if one is to attain true happiness in life, carefree is the best policy. That may seem like a difficult task in these difficult times but Poppy sure does make it look easy. The film leaves us with some unresolved plot elements (and I'm risking mild spoilers here): we never learn whether or not Poppy finally gets her driver's license, nor do we find out if her Flamenco classes amount to more than just an after-school activity. The outcomes matter little to us and even less, I'd imagine, to Poppy.