Central character Poppy (Sally Hawkins) maintains a positive outlook throughout the movie. Her bike is stolen near the beginning and her only lament is that she didn't get to say goodbye. Poppy's a 30ish, single, North London primary school teacher whose passion is going to pubs and bouncing on a trampoline. Poppy's a wiseacre, unable to stop joking and always putting a spin of hope and optimistic sarcasm on everything. It's a struggle for her to take things seriously, though her caring demeanor is never nauseatingly sweet. She drinks, hangs out, is accosted by life and shrugs it off as "things just happen, move on and have fun with life." She's almost nervously out of sync with the rest of the world. After the bike incident she decides to learn to drive. We then follow Poppy and the various people she encounters, focusing more on life lessons than getting all hung up in plot.
Director Mike Leigh (Vera Drake/Secrets & Lies) is known to use his stage experience to work with actors to build the characters. As a result Poppy's emotions are backed up by real feelings and an assembled core of motives. My favorite Mike Leigh movie is Naked and surprisingly Happy Go Lucky is very similar in its concept, but approaches it in highly diverse, almost polar opposite ways. Naked's protagonist, Johnny, seemingly didn't care about anyone or anything, as evidenced by his sadistic, nihilistic behavior, but really he only wants someone to understand him. In this film, Poppy wants people to care as much as she does sometimes going overboard to please anyone. She adamantly believes that all people (even with diametrically opposed views to her own), are chasing the same rainbows. In both films the protagonists gravitate towards the same goal: to be accepted for who he or she is.
Hawkins is phenomenal, laying down one of the most multi-layered performances in celluloid history. The rest of the acting is superb as well. Perhaps the best is Eddie Marsan (Scott, the driving instructor), who is a racist, homophobe, misogynist mess of a human being. Marsan has shown up in a lot of strange roles in a variety of movies (21 Grams, Miami Vice) but this is the one to see. His performance disrupts the ambience of the movie so perfectly that you want to jump in the screen and throttle him. Alexis Zegerman is so organically believable as Poppy's flat mate/best mate, Zoe, that you don't question her from the second you see her on screen. Karina Fernandez does an exquisite job as the flamenco teacher. Poppy's sister Suzy (Kate O'Flynn) is a treat to behold, as the pessimist from hell with a permanent dour expression on her brooding face, and she manages to steal a couple of scenes. Stanley Townsend plays a transient with a secret. In Leigh's hands the brilliant interlude between Poppy and the bum brings dimensions you wouldn't think possible. Every character has so much depth that even when they repulse you, you want to know more about them.
Happy Go Lucky is a life affirming movie. I went in expecting a schmaltzy comedy, and instead found a rich perspective on life. You come out of this movie knowing the world is a better place with someone like Poppy in it. Experiencing a slice out of the existence of Poppy, we see things go up and down all around her but know in our hearts she will persevere, and so will we.Happy Go Lucky ★★★★✩
Starring Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Karina Fernandez. Director: Mike Leigh