Film review by: Witney Seibold




            All those happy people. What are they hiding? Why are they so insidiously upbeat all the time? Are they desperate for attention? They must be. They’re parents never loved them, or they never had any friends, so now they have to falsely act happy all the time so they can seem like life is o.k. when they’re really masking horrid, horrid sadness. That’s it. Those happy people are really just hiding sadness and rage.


            Or, perhaps, they’re just naturally happy people.


            Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the main character of Mike Leigh’s newest film “Happy-Go-Lucky,” is a happy person. She talks to everyone, and treats everyone like a friend. She enters a bookstore and chats at the broody clerk. The clerk scowls at her. She leaves the store grinning. “Bet you’re glad to be rid of me, eh?” she playfully jibes. She returns to where she locked her bike, only to find it has been stolen. Again, she smiles, and is ready with a lighthearted quip: “I never got a chance to say goodbye.”


            Poppy lives with her best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), goes out drinking at night, and teaches kindergarten by day. Her little sister Dawn (Andrea Riseborough) is constantly bickering with one boy or another, but the girls can easily assemble to riff on how silly and ridiculous boys are. Poppy is single, but is o.k. with that. When she gets a bad back, she sees it as an opportunity to be cured, rather than a problem to be surmounted. She is a bit loopy, and can be periodically annoying, but she seems aware of that and it doesn’t seem to affect her.


            Poppy is not the kind of happy that comes from reading self-help books, or repeating cutesy mantras. When you see an infectiously happy person in an American film, a reason is always given to explain away their happiness. Poppy’s happiness is deeply ingrained in her character; she’s happy to the bone. Some people in Poppy’s life are exasperated by this, most notably her youngest sister , living a bland suburban pregnant life, and Poppy’s bitter driving instructor Scott (an incredible Eddie Marsan).


            Scott may serve as the antagonist of this film, although Mike Leigh has never been interested in such melodramatic power dynamics; kitchen-sink-realism has always been his M.O. Scott is a bitter man who treats his car like his castle, yells at Poppy for wearing the wrong kind of shoes to her driving lesson, and makes many subtle racist comments and expounds on paranoid conspiracy theories. His scenes made me laugh, but Scott is not a funny character. He seems the most baffled by Poppy’s unstaunchable optimism. He begins to suspect that she’s playing some kind of game with him.


            Sally Hawkins gives an excellent performance. She manages to make Poppy a gentle soul and a cheery and optimistic person without seeming like an inhuman saint or a phony. She is natural and real, and still manages to be happy and good at all times. She doesn’t want to merely cheer people up. She seems to have an instinct to want to help them. And, of course, many people are suspicious of help, even if it’s unspoken and instinctual.


            “Happy-Go-Lucky” will cheer you and it will warm you; Poppy’s happiness in infectious. But while we admire and cheer her indomitability of spirit, “Happy-Go-Lucky” is more about, like all of Leigh’s films, the everyday conflicts of character that we constantly face. While his previous hits like “Naked” and “All or Nothing” focus on the hurt we all hide, “Happy-Go-Lucky” – which is way out-of-character for Leigh – focuses instead on the joy we’re all capable of, and how it can last even through the grim dourness of the basic Londoner. And, from what I understand, Londoners are generally dourer than any American.


            When looked at too closely, “Happy-Go-Lucky” may even look like an essay or philosophical treatise on the true nature of humans; indeed I can see it being shown in classrooms. Are we naturally fearful, lazy, or happy? Well, we meet a few of each in this film. But it doesn’t feel like an essay when watched. It feels like Woody Allen on happy drugs, right down to the obnoxiously upbeat jazz soundtrack. And, you know what? Sometimes we need to feel obnoxiously upbeat ourselves.

Published in: on December 16, 2008 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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