Optimism is usually considered a naďve outlook by intellectuals and others who take life seriously, including filmmakers and even a few critics. So why has Mike Leigh, a very serious British filmmaker, chosen an extremely happy and optimistic character as the subject of his latest film, “Happy-Go-Lucky”? Is he going to throw hardships on her to test her the way Job, or Candide, were tested by their creators? Perhaps, but in a much smaller scope and in a far more subtle way.
This character-driven piece introduces us to 30-year-old Poppy, amazingly inhabited by actor Sally Hawkins in her breakthrough role. Poppy feels good about life and refuses to let annoyances—such as her bike being stolen or throwing out her back—get her down. And she wants to spread her cheer to the world—at least those individuals whom she encounters daily. She’s light and flirty and always joking. Her day job is teaching elementary school; she’s more enthusiastic about playing than a number of her young students. When the bus in which she is riding lurches, she greets the jolt with a child-like wonder that fills her with joy.
Strangers she encounters—as well as the audience—are not sure what to make of her. Is she ignorant? Is she childish? Is she superficial? Is she, like Peter Pan, refusing to grow up? As the film develops, we begin to realize that she’s a bit deeper than she first appears. Perhaps she’s trying to improve the world simply by being herself and doing what comes naturally.
A fascinating character, certainly, but I must confess that as I watched this movie, I kept wondering to myself, “Where is this going?” And by the time it finished, I still was not sure. To say there is no plot wouldn’t be quite accurate—for certainly things do happen in the film—good, bad, and indifferent—but they are really more a series of minor episodes or subplots or vignettes. She takes Flamenco lessons, she visits her pregnant sister, she helps a student to overcome violent tendencies, she meets a mentally-challenged homeless man, she dates a social worker. But the episodes are uneven; some work better than others. The scenes at the school, in particular, don’t seem to work so well.
One of the better scenes occurs just after she has thrown out her back by jumping on a trampoline. She goes to see a physical therapist to get it fixed. Alone with the therapist in the examination room, stripped to her sexy underwear, she flirts and jokes with him. In any other movie, the therapist would probably make a sexual advance toward her, and then the question would be whether she accepts or rejects it. But in this realistic film, which focuses on a character with unrealistic expectations that everybody be joyful, the therapist remains completely professional. It’s a good study in contrasts.
The most interesting and dramatic subplot involves a series of driving lessons that Poppy takes with instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan, also in an incredible performance). The two characters, both teachers, have totally opposite approaches toward life (as well as teaching). Scott takes driving very seriously and Poppy’s playfulness really gets under his skin. The relationship develops over time and the two continue to rub each other the wrong way, but neither is willing to give up on the other. Toward the end, when they finally have it out, we discover what a profound effect Poppy has had on Scott. And it’s not what Poppy, or the audience, were expecting.
So just how serious is happiness? When the film is over, even if the so-called plot doesn’t really have an ending, we do question what good happiness can, or can’t, do. And we wonder if optimism can be just as an intellectual response to a harsh world as pessimism. Perhaps something positive really can come out of the daily tribulations of life—Poppy certainly thinks so.