Rated – R
Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Kate O’Flynn, Eddie Marsan
If you’re not familiar with Mike Leigh films, maybe this is the one you want to start off with. His films typically deal with the harsh reality of his working class characters and the dilemmas or life-changing situations they find themselves in. Okay so what? Leigh is able to bring out a sense of authenticity in all of his films. The dialogue is fresh. Every actor falls into his or her character. And the plot always goes further than you expect.
Happy-Go-Lucky is no different. I suggested the casual movie-watcher to view this film first mainly because it’s probably the most upbeat film from Leigh yet. Sally Hawkins shines as Poppy, a 30-year-old woman who is as happy as can be and simply enjoying life. She’s always wearing a smile on her face and affects everyone around her with her bubbly attitude and non-stop chattering. It’s a fabulous performance by Hawkins and without her, Happy-Go-Lucky simply wouldn’t have been the same.
The movie takes a look at how someone so happy with herself is interpreted by the rest of the world. Her roommate mocks her cheeriness, her sister claims her laughs and smiles are fake, and her driving instructor mistakens her happiness as flirting. This got me thinking… what if I knew someone like Poppy? How would I interpret her over-the-top joy? There’s no doubt that she comes across as annoying half the time and naive the other half. It’s driven into our heads that there has to be a concrete reason why someone is happy, but that’s not the case with Poppy. She doesn’t have a boyfriend. She’s as friendly when she’s binge-drinking or stone cold sober. It’s funny because I’m not sure whether she’s someone whom I would love or hate if I knew her.
Of course, this isn’t the extent of the film. Leigh dives deep into character development and shows a characteristic of Poppy that surprised me. She’s a grammar school teacher, which makes perfect sense because her child-like charm can easily relate to youngsters. But when she encounters a boy who’s being violent, she pulls all of the right strings and shows a personal concern that all teachers should have. If only adults were as innocent and open as kids… or better yet, if only adults were like Poppy.
Depending on your personality, you will either enjoy Poppy’s presence or loathe every second she’s on screen. She has little responsibilities, no plans, and she’s sharing the same apartment with the same roommate for ten years. She lives her life day-by-day and loves everything about it. Some will say she’s lucky to be that joyous and have everything seemingly fall into her lap as she pleases. Others will despise her happiness and comment how she doesn’t deserve everything she has. But really… what does she have? Not much.
The best scenes of the film were of Poppy and her driving instructor, Scott (Marsan). These two clash in the car during every encounter up to the explosive conclusion. They’re polar opposites. Scott is a foul-mouthed, bigot who hates the world. But he’s a key character in Poppy’s life and their final scene is crucial to Poppy’s self-revelation.
This film is one of the big surprises for me of 2008. Sally Hawkins will surely be rewarded with the acting nomination she deserves. And Mike Leigh continues to create sharp and deeply heart-felt movies that go beyond the sugar-coating of Hollywood. His films display the keenest observations of character study. Add Happy-Go-Lucky to the list as another superb Mike Leigh film.