Irrational Exuberance

2008-10-10 (Limited release)

Everybody deserves a friend like Poppy, but most of us never get one. That’s because while few enough such fantastically exuberant spirits show up in the cinema, they are even fewer and farther between in real life. But by watching Mike Leigh’s sublimely fresh Happy-Go-Lucky, you can at least spend a couple hours in the company of a creature so blissfully and honestly happy that you could be forgiven for wondering what the rest of humanity is so depressed about, anyway.

There is a story somewhere within Happy-Go-Lucky, but like many of Leigh creations, it is really a character portrait. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a single, 30-year-old London schoolteacher who apparently never met a situation she couldn’t chuckle and whistle her way out of. Far from being the happy fool, Poppy seems the kind who simply can’t understand what good it does to get upset about things. The film starts with her chatty imprecations being laughably snubbed by a rude clerk. Then her bike gets stolen. But no matter, Poppy carries on, determined to shrug it all off.

The film that follows is episodic at best, following Poppy on different excursions that sometimes test her resolve, but are more often just opportunity for a laugh. We see her in the classroom, flapping her arms and cheering the kids on like an overgrown kid who always wanted to be the person inside the Big Bird suit. Then Poppy is out at the clubs and pubs with her mates, particularly her flatmate and fellow schoolteacher Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and wayward younger sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn); both of them as dour and steeped in day-to-day realism as Poppy is a big, toothy grin of a girl. A running gag that turns eventually into a more serious threat to Poppy’s worldview comes in the form of Scott (Eddie Marsan), a driving instructor with a certain Unabomber tint to his rigid antisociability.

With such a sprightly creation at his disposal, Leigh could have gone a couple different ways. He could have made the film into a treacly treatise on whimsy and optimism, with a fairy-tale conclusion that would greatly satisfy a certain kind of audience that doesn’t get out to the movies too often, and demands happy endings when they do. Or, Leigh could have dumped Poppy into a trash heap of cynicism, hurling her into one vicious scenario after another until her grinning façade finally cracks and she sees the world for the awful place that it is; you know, “realism”. Thankfully, he chose neither route, and instead allowed Poppy herself to take the film where it needs to go.

When you have a force of nature, it’s best to stay out of the way. Leigh knew this 15 years ago when he made Naked, a film that’s remarkably similar to Happy-Go-Lucky in almost every way except for the outlook of the main characters. David Thewlis’ apocalyptic bastard motormouth Johnny would want to chew up and spit out somebody as fresh-looking as Poppy. But unlike everybody who cringed under his vitriolic assault in that film, Poppy could just laugh him off, head to the pub with her mates, and when pressed about it later, say with a smile, “Oh, he’s alright, just a little glum is all.”

Hawkins took the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival for her performance (one nearly as career-defining a role as Thewlis’), as it’s easy to see why, as she makes unburdened optimism so bone-deep and natural. To seem this happy, most performers have to twist themselves into pretzels of overenthusiasm, whereas Hawkins just hops right into the role with disconcerting ease. Whether conversing with a deranged homeless man or brushing off her suburban sister’s hints that she needs to grow up and settle down, Hawkins’ Poppy sidesteps all life’s attempts to knock her down as smartly as a ninja.

It helps of course that Hawkins is surrounded by such a smart cast, as well, all of whom mesh together with the kind of fluid rapport one is used to from Leigh. Stage actors Zegerman and O’Flynn make assured film debuts here that should rightfully work as springboards to bigger things, while Marsan plays a subtler variation on the thin-lipped, burning-eyes creep that he’s been honing of late in films like Hancock. But that cannot diminish the impressive nature of Hawkins’ performance here, which puts across Poppy as a fully-formed adult and not some caricature of childlike optimism.

It’s a tribute to Leigh that he’s able to put across a film about such a buoyantly optimistic character without feeling pressed to see the world through her eyes. The music is cheerfully playful, and the cinematography as bright as one can get in North London, but this not Amelie. The only rose-tinted lenses here are worn by Poppy, not the filmmaker, and even Poppy’s slip on occasion. Just when the more cynical viewers may start to feel like Happy-Go-Lucky is all a bit much, the film gives us a peek behind Poppy’s brash and goony smile and lets us see that moment when she starts to wonder whether she’s had it wrong all along, that maybe life is as awful as so many around her seem to think.

After that, the smile seems less a willful denial of reality and more a statement of determination. Dour is easy, happy is hard.