Don't worry, be happy: Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a London schoolteacher who can't help but see the bright side of life.
Don't worry, be happy: Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a London schoolteacher who can't help but see the bright side of life. Miramax Films
We've all known that person: always smiling and cheerful no matter how bad things might be. British director Mike Leigh investigates this mysterious persona in Happy Go Lucky, where a London schoolteacher attacks everyday travails with a good dose of the giggles.
As Poppy, the heroine of Leigh's marvelous comedy, Sally Hawkins is slim and cute, with a mouthful of big English teeth, and supernaturally perky-she's so buoyant it's as if gravity to her is just a suggestion.
A London schoolteacher, Poppy is a glass-half-full kind of person. In a bookstore, she attempts to engage the young man behind the register, tries again when he fails to respond, and finally gives up. She might have concluded he's a jerk. Instead, she gives a sigh that says, Oh well, someone's having a bad day.
When she emerges from the store to find her bike has been stolen, she does have a moment of melancholy: "I didn't get to say goodbye," she says. Then she decides this is her opportunity to learn to drive.
The question Leigh implicitly poses is whether Poppy is fatuously happy — whether her take-it-as-it-comes, go-along-to-get-along cheerfulness is simply simpleminded. I'm delighted to say this isn't the case — but her worldview will certainly be tested.
Leigh's theme is a classic one: the possibility of enchantment in a world that can be ugly and threatening. Examples range from the aptly named Disney film Enchanted to the Bozo-Goes-to-Buchenwald horror show Life is Beautiful.
Poppy lives with her kid sister and a gal-pal, and there's a lot of bustle at the movie's margins. But the spine of the film is a series of five driving lessons with an instructor named Scott, played by Eddie Marson.
Marson has a head that looks too big for his smallish body and a puttyish face that could probably seem congenial in a Seven Dwarfs kind of way but is here tense and gargoyle-like.
Scott is a control freak, and in their first lesson, Poppy's giggles bring out the English schoolmaster in him.
Leigh builds his screenplays through actors' improvisations, and he reportedly lay in the backseat of the car as Hawkins and Marson drove around and developed their rapport. Their performances are riveting.
Poppy responds to Scott's orders with tongue-in-cheek exclamations of obedience, as if she thinks he has a sense of humor about himself. But Poppy's teasing doesn't lead to his loosening up, as in screwball comedy. No, he becomes angrier; he has road rage; he delivers tirades about the dangers of multiculturalism.
To Leigh, he embodies a kind of burgeoning fascism, and if the early driving lessons are hilarious, the middle ones have notes of dissonance. By the end, they're unnerving bordering on scary.
Poppy's worldview is tested in other ways: by a boy misbehaving in class who turns out to have been abused, and by her younger sister's domineering boyfriend.
But Leigh takes the movie's look and tempo from her spirit. The colors in Poppy's London pop; the reds and greens and blues are so vivid they make Happy-Go-Lucky seem larky in spite of everything.
It's a beautiful balance: Of all Leigh's many films, this is the easiest, the least labored. It dawns on us slowly that Poppy's is not a life of whimsy, but a design for living that's deep and hard-won.
Sally Hawkins is so effervescent that after the film ended, I worried about her; it must have been so sad to leave Poppy behind. But I'd like to think Poppy will always be there in spirit. I think she'll make you want to cultivate your own, inner Poppy.