"Happy" and "Mike Leigh movie" are not things that generally go together. The British director is better known for, well, for depressing and brutal films about depressing and brutal people living depressing and brutal lives. Happy just doesn't come into the Mike Leigh oeuvre all that much. So it ought to be little surprise that Happy-Go-Lucky features a heroine who is so darned happy-go-lucky, so chirpy and twittery and giggly and unserious that she managed to make me feel sorry for the crazy, ranting, misguided, hideous, appallingly xenophobic racist whose buttons she unwittingly pushed in her happy happy joy joy way. Isn't he right about her? I thought to myself. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Perhaps this movie is a secret psychological test. Your personality type can be deduced by how annoying you find Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the aforementioned optimist who *always* looks on the bright side, and to what degree you think her martinet of a driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), the aforementioned nutter and the epitome of road rage, might just be right about her.
Poppy, a thirtysomething London school teacher, swears she's really, genuinely, honest to goodness happy. And there's something to be said for happiness, and for Happy-Go-Lucky, a movie in which very, very little happens except the sort of everyday stuff that makes up Poppy's generally uneventful but kind of ordinarily interesting life. What's extraordinary about Poppy's life is Poppy herself, her joie de vivre, her seeming obliviousness to what's bad, her cheeriness in the face of everything, her goodness. There's a sense in which her happiness appears to be unearned, that she is happy in spite of everything because she takes nothing seriously. But through a series of strange encounters with odd (and sometimes frightening) men, the film gradually, subtly reveals that's not the case -- Poppy does earn her happiness, and it is sometimes hard-earned, and she is happy despite everything, despite her deep empathy for everyone. One way to interpret Poppy is that her happiness is less like inner contentment than desperation. Happy-Go-Lucky offers an alternative interpretation: in the face of life's ups and down, trials and tribulations, there's more than one way to deal. If there's a downside to living, Poppy's strategy for dealing with it is to see the upside instead. But there is risk in that, and in her efforts to spread sunshine and smiles -- she's generally met with indifference, and occasionally with hostility, but she reaches out, reaches across the chasm of loneliness and unhappiness that separates people and tries to make contact. Turns out a lot of people don't want to turn their frowns upside-down.
Hawkins is terrific as the constantly nattering, smiling Poppy -- she reveals the ambiguity and awkwardness of Poppy, her annoying cloyingness, but also the genuine warmth and joy. Alexis Zegerman is indispensable as Zoe, Poppy's acerbic and more balanced flatmate; likewise Marsan, as the disturbingly funny, scarily apoplectic driving instructor -- he's the kind of repellent person you can't stop watching. There's great, unrelieved tension in the film that comes from waiting for something to happen -- waiting, really, for something bad to happen, for something to burst those bubbles that the ever effervescent Poppy produces. But that's not what Happy-Go-Lucky is about. What is it about? Nothing really, and maybe everything. It's a movie that flows like a river, or more like a leaf floating on a river -- it bobs and drifts, gets tossed about a bit, gets stuck in eddies and twirls for a spell, breaks loose and floats some more, and so on. Watching the leaf from the shore is moderately interesting, but Happy-Go-Lucky invites you to consider the journey from the leaf's perspective too.