Happy-Go-Lucky (2008, Director: Mike Leigh): I’ve been a fan of Mike Leigh since I first saw Life is Sweet back in 1991. He’s a director who has a knack for telling small stories about people who are usually overlooked. With Happy-Go-Lucky, his ninth feature, he turns his attention to Poppy, a preschool teacher living in North London with an unusually sunny outlook on life. Sally Hawkins plays the Pollyanna-ish Poppy with just the right touch. It’s a role that could easily slip into annoying territory, but Hawkins gives us a real sense that for Poppy, optimism is not the same thing as naïveté. Despite her goofy wardrobe and slightly ADHD demeanour, she can see the pain and violence in the world around her. In her work as a teacher, she has to deal with one of her students bullying his classmates, and when the boy confesses that he’s being beaten at home, her eyes register the blow even as her smile stays fixed.
Parallelling that small example is the more significant character of Scott (Eddie Marsan), her uptight driving instructor. It’s clear that he’s a bit of an emotional timebomb, and it’s no surprise that her sunny outlook makes him seethe. Though it’s played for laughs at the beginning, by the end of the film the darkness has crept dangerously close and Poppy is left a little bit staggered, though we know she’ll pick herself up. It’s almost as if her happiness is genetic. And the film actually got me thinking about whether certain people are just genetically (chemically?) predisposed to optimism or pessimism.
Though I love Eddie Marsan, his character is a bit one-dimensional, so I was glad that Alexis Zegerman, playing Poppy’s flatmate Zoe, does such a fine job providing some ballast to her relentless optimism, while managing not to look like a killjoy.
Though I generally enjoyed the film, the storytelling is surprisingly clumsy in a few places. For instance, a long scene featuring Poppy and a homeless man felt out of place and unnecessary. And given the episodic nature of the story, it could easily have been trimmed. Another criticism of the film I’ve read is that many of the characters have essentially already appeared in Leigh’s films. Poppy reminded me of Alison Steadman’s character in Life is Sweet, and Eddie Marsan has been compared to David Thewlis in Naked. Despite these echoes, the film succeeds because it provides a new situation and new interactions between these types of people. The rather less-than-Pollyanna conclusion seems to be that some people are just happy, and some may never be.