“Are you happy?
As a fan of Mike Leigh films, I watched Happy-Go-Lucky not sure exactly what to expect. I’d caught a few previews that showed a young, giddy teacher on the loose in a classroom, and I hoped the film wasn’t about one of those idealistic teachers who pulls a promising, but horrible damaged student from failure. I really hate those sorts of films.
Anyway, I should have had more faith in Mike Leigh. While I’m not exactly sure what the filmmaker wanted his audience to take away from the film, Leigh certainly didn’t make a trite clichéd film, and Happy-Go-Lucky is, instead, a unique character study.
When the film begins, 30-year-old teacher colourful, bubbly, quirky Poppy (Sally Hawkins) rides her bike to a bookshop and goes inside. Poppy tries to engage the morose shop assistant (Elliott Cowan) into idle, friendly chatter, and in spite of the fact that she throws herself into her goal of breaking the ice, the bookshop worker delivers only hard stares. He doesn’t want to be friendly and he isn’t even going to be polite.
By the end of the first scene, I knew that Poppy was someone I would inherently dislike. She’s annoying but more than that, she’s downright pushy, and she’s like this throughout the whole film. While Poppy argues that her demeanor is an attempt to be happy and to share happiness, I’d argue against that and say that Poppy doesn’t respect people’s boundaries. And this is particularly obvious in situations where Poppy pushes the limits with men–in the bookshop, for example, and with her driving instructor Scott. In both of these situations the men are trapped physically in their environments (the shop and the car) and cannot escape. With other people, Poppy’s pushiness is a bit subtler. There’s one scene when Poppy’s roommate, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) is reading and Poppy interrupts her–even though Zoe sends out busy signals. There’s a moment when Zoe silently seems to make the decision to put her book aside (in spite of the fact she was enjoying it) and listen to Poppy.
Poppy’s effervescent personality may be a hit with Tim (Samuel Roukin) the social worker she chats up at school, but she seems to grate on her new driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). Poppy gets under the skin of this sexually repressed racist, closet loon, and even though that is her intention in the first place, she seems genuinely stunned when he responds in an unpredictable fashion. The scenes between these two were simply hilarious as Poppy gets Scott’s goat and deliberately goads him. I can buy the idea that Poppy puts on a happy face for work; we all do that to a certain extent when dealing with the public, but in Poppy’s case it never ends, and in the relationship with her driving instructor, she seems to want him to blow a fuse and go postal.
One review I read mentioned that a negative reaction to Poppy’s personality says a great deal about that person, but I think that’s codswallop. While Poppy has a lot of positive traits in her constant quest to learn and enjoy life in the process, she is no respecter of other people’s boundaries and it doesn’t seem to occur to her that some people may be ill, grieving, distracted or perhaps have topics they don’t wish to discuss. We’ve all heard the term passive-aggressive, well I think Poppy is ecstatic-aggressive. She gets her way by being like a rowdy dog who’s just too happy to restrain herself from jumping up on the owner and knocking him down. I found Poppy to be a terribly annoying, clueless and irritating character–someone who insists on shoving her world vision onto everyone she meets–whether they want it or not. It’s probably a great thing that she meets the social worker–a man who literally speaks her language.
In spite of the fact I was ready to strangle Poppy fairly early on in the film, Happy-Go-Lucky was clever, marvelously entertaining and highly recommended for fans of Mike Leigh or lovers of character-driven films in general.