When does maturity start? At the time a person becomes a twentysomething, are he or she really supposed to be a grown up? From Mike Leigh, the seasoned British director of “Secrets and Lies,” “Vera Drake” and “Topsy-Turvy,” the charming “Happy-Go-Lucky” aims to answer this question. The film – a deceptively simplistic slice-of-life dramedy – stars the fairly unknown Sally Hawkins (in a startlingly lovable performance) as the effervescent-to-a-fault Poppy, who also happens to be one of the most unique and unforgettable characters of the year.
Poppy hasn’t really concerned herself with growing out of her shell since adolescence. At 30, she still acts like a teenager (she even asks for the crust on her toast to be cut off). Her friends like her just fine, yet there is a level of distrust and pretension that Poppy never seems to pick up on. Living in a bit of a fantasy world she’s overly trusting, doesn’t think before she speaks and has a sense of humor that takes a while for those in the “real world” to understand. However, her optimism is unshakably wondrous and she seems to find beauty in everything. One of the best (and only) choices she’s made is her vocation as a primary school teacher. Whereas she cannot connect with her fellow 30-year-olds all the time, she can always find splendor in her children.
While Poppy lives her life in a confident state of happiness and fantasy, her natural instincts tend to curiously draw her to the real world. This comes in the unexpected form of her miserly, bigoted driver’s ed. instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). Unable to process his unhappiness, she constantly tries to make him laugh yet her bizarre sense of humor and Scott’s stubborn pessimism drives him crazy (no pun intended).
Another jump into the real world comes in a scene where Poppy interacts with a distraught homeless man. The scene is unforgettable. She attempts to connect with a person who is utterly crazed, a person capable of unprovoked violence. We watch in fear this woman who feels she can be a savior and is almost brutally awakened to the real world. Poppy tries to bring true happiness to people like Scott and the homeless drunk, neither of whom can accept it, and she finds she is only playing with fire. She is a woman ill-equipped to deal with the real world – the one place that intrigues her more than anything else.
Two of the film’s greatest assets are Hawkins and Leigh’s superb creation of the character of Poppy. Leigh writes an incredible dialect for Polly, one that Hawkins delivers naturally with quick wit and beautiful realism. We see the flaws in Polly’s beauty and vice versa. Her personality begins as cute, but ends up somewhat tragic. One can’t help but feel what the other characters wonder about Poppy – why can’t she take anything seriously? On the other hand, she provides an endless supply of optimism that serves terrifically as a lesson to not grow up too fast and enjoy life as it comes and goes. The script is succinct and one-of-a-kind and allows the film’s audience to gladly make up their own mind about Poppy as both a person and a symbol.
Regrettably, “Happy-Go-Lucky” disappoints on a very problematic level in terms of Leigh’s impressive film career. His resume until now has featured a refined and mature catalogue of serious works that speak loudly. Considering his triumphant 1996 film “Secrets & Lies” in comparison to “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the earlier film is certainly the stronger piece. “Happy-Go-Lucky” is a very good film, but doesn’t feel like the work of a professional five-times-Oscar-nominated director like Leigh but rather something of a strong debut by a first-time auteur. Like Poppy, Leigh seems to have problems with maturity.
Nevertheless, if Oscar finds this little piece come February to be worthy enough for a much-deserved Best Actress nomination then all will be right in the cinematic world. Hawkins is a force of nature – one of the best performances by an actress this year (a year that has been very kind to actresses). Whether you’re a bitter pessimist, or a glowing optimist, “Happy-Go-Lucky” will leave you as carefree as the title suggests.