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Review: Happy-Go-Lucky

(I posted about this film right after we saw it, but I thought I’d go ahead and write a proper review.)

Round this time of year many people watch a higher percentage of old films than they do on a normal basis. They drag out old VHS copies of White Christmas, Holiday Inn, It’s a Wonderful Live, and let these films play a number on the sentimental and nostalgic parts of their brains. Watching those films, we can’t help but think of the “good old days.” Now, arguably, these movies represent very little about their respective time periods, but with their overriding optimism and upbeat plots, we can’t help but dream a little dream about how things used to be better.

Mike Leigh’s latest film is not a musical and probably will never stir up much nostalgia, but it does paint an accurate portrayal of Now that will attract film watchers for years and years. The film is not an immediate classic, nor does it have any overwhelming strengths that make people talk or ensure its success as a indie phenom (no hip pregnant teens, crazy families in classic vans, or sex dolls posing as girlfriends). Instead, Leigh has crafted a film that is grounded in reality, to the extent that it is hard to remember these are characters and this is fictional.

Happy-Go-Lucky centers on Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an upbeat, eternally optimistic¬† school-teacher who lives with her best friend in London. Hawkins brings Poppy to life in brilliant ways, from the boots she continually wears to the sneaky smile that is ever-present. We meet Poppy riding her bike through London, her bright clothes standing out even in contrast to the various hues that pepper the city streets. Soon after this scene her bike is stolen, and with only a mournful “We didn’t even get to say goodbye,” Poppy moves on, not to be discouraged by this crime.

As we follow her to work, to driving lessons, and out to her pregnant sister’s house in the suburbs over the next few weeks of her life, we find out that nothing is able to discourage Poppy. And as we realize this, we expect Hawkins’ character to get really annoying really quickly. But the subtlety of Leigh’s writing and the strength of Hawkin’s acting combine to reveal that Poppy is not naively living on a planet of her own making but choosing to navigate reality with a smile on her face.

This does not mean she succeeds in bringing that cheer to others – a bookstore clerk that she meets in the first scene is unmoved by her obstinate attempts at communication and as the film progresses she fails and meets other obstacles, and with each one we see deeper into who Poppy is and find out more what it is that drives her eternal optimism. I found myself expecting to find cracks in her psyche; surely she is running from something. But Leigh and Hawkins reveal, through Poppy’s encounters with a strong supporting cast that the optimism is not a defense mechanism, instead it is revealed to be a sure-footed strength, a confidence that Poppy carries with her, undefiled by the sin rampant in the world. Poppy is not traversing the world unaware, instead she is wise to the problems and tragedies of life and courageously smiles through it all, insistent that even if she can’t make everyone smile, she at least ought to try.

Eddie Marsan puts in a wonderful performance as Scott, the driving teacher who is exasperated to no end by Poppy’s enthusiasm and happiness. But in Leigh’s film, no character is a prop or a cartoon, and Marsan puts in a performance that turns on a dime and opens our eyes even further into what it means to live as Poppy does.

As most Americans enter into the holidays, it is a shame they won’t take time to go find a theater showing Happy-Go-Lucky. Because, unlike those classic holiday movies which sugar-coat problems with singing and frosty windows, Happy-Go-Lucky’s strength is that it dwells in the mundane yet tragic reality of modern life. It is only because of Poppy’s unwavering exuberance that we remember we too have a choice in how to respond to reality, and acceptance of it does not mean cynicism or pessimism.¬†


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