HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (****) is a deceptively simple British film from writer-director Mike Leigh that happens to be the surprise of the year. In its own low-key way, this charming little movie engages the audience right from the start, but it’s hard to tell where the story wants to take you. With splendid performances from its entire cast, this is one of those small, talky films that might seem to be going nowhere but you realize how deep the narrative is cutting by the end. This isn’t a film with a “plot” per se; rather, it’s about people, their relationships, and how the human spirit thrives in each and every one of us. There are no “bad guys,” no massive plot twists, no shoot-outs or car chases. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is a movie about the human condition, and beneath its sunny exterior, lays some dark truths that everyone faces at one time or another in their lives.
Sally Hawkins, in a monumental performance, is Poppy, an eternally good-natured woman living in London with her friend and sister. She’s a teacher, a great friend, a caring sister, a party animal, and above all, a woman with the capacity to love, respect, and think positively about anything and anyone, no matter how flawed they may be. We see her in class, working with her students, trying to give them a better education. We see her with her friends, having a blast, and bringing joy to their lives. This must have been an extremely tough role to pull off for Hawkins, as she has to imbue Poppy with the sunniest of dispositions and never once stray from her upbeat spirit. Even when things around her aren’t quite working right, she never loses her cool, and always remains upbeat. For instance, after her bike is stolen, the first thing that crosses her mind is sadness in that she wasn’t able to “say good-bye” to her precious set of wheels. Never mind that some asshole stole it; that’s just part of life to Poppy. She’s upset that she didn’t get to say good bye. Hawkins has been receiving a ton of praise for her performance, and has to be considered a shoo-in for a best actress nomination at next year’s Oscars. It’s a commanding piece of emotional acting that rings true on all levels. More cynical people might find her to be annoying, too upbeat, too optimistic. But those people need to realize that there are plenty of Poppy’s out there in the real world. We just don’t often get a chance to spend time with them when we go to the movies as storytellers tend to dwell on the depressing or the dark. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is just that – a film that’s about the celebration of life and how some people can raise the spirits of everyone around them, no matter how problematic their lives may be.
This theory is put to the test when Poppy starts taking driving lessons from a rather unpleasant driving instructor named Scott, brilliantly played by veteran character actor Eddie Marsan, who made memorable appearances in MIAMI VICE, THE NEW WORLD, and most recently, HANCOCK. Scott is damaged goods and Poppy knows it. But she doesn’t let that deter her. Through their weekly lessons together, Poppy starts to work her happy-magic on Scott, who alternates between being receptive to her charms, and completely shut off from them. Scott’s got a whole series of issues and through his interactions with Poppy, some of those issues become more troubling, and some are put to rest. Marsan gets to unload in a fiery, explosive scene towards the end that is the most emotionally hard-hitting moment of the film, and quite possibly, of any film this year. It’s an Oscar-clip moment and if there’s any justice, he’ll get a supporting actor nomination for his work in this film. He’s just terrific.
And so is the film overall. I didn’t know too much about the film before I walked in and neither should you if you plan on seeing it. It’s not a film that demands to be seen on the big screen, but if you decide to check it out, you’ll be plenty happy that you did. A film like HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is rare in that it celebrates all that’s wonderful about people rather than focusing on the inherent flaws of human beings. And while there is a dark subtext to some of the narrative upon further reflection, we are swept up by Poppy’s unending optimism and her ability to make all those around her smile with delight. Mike Leigh, in films such as SECRETS & LIES, VERA DRAKE, NAKED, and TOPSY-TURVY, is a filmmaker interested in behavior, decisions, and the elegant way in which people interact with each other. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is a pure delight from start to finish and a wonderful change of pace.