Happy-Go-Lucky opens Friday in select theaters
In the beginning of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, after a montage of Poppy (Sally Hawkins) riding her bike with an effusive smile on her face, we see she's been wearing flashy, cumbersome boots while pedaling. It's hard to imagine covering as much ground on a bike as she does in such restrictive footwear. By the end of Happy-Go-Lucky, it's clear that not only can Poppy ride around town in those boots; she could wear them to walk a tightrope to the moon.
That opening scene on the bike is one of the few moments in the film that isn't about teaching—or maybe I should say about learning. Five characters are teachers, and although Poppy teaches young children, she's just as much a learner herself, taking flamenco classes and driving lessons. Leigh cuts from Poppy studying to shots of her students working at an assignment, reminding us that the best teachers are those who love to learn.
While Poppy is an all-star teacher, her flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), also a primary school instructor, doesn't bring quite the same magic to her classroom. Leigh makes an almost scientific experiment of figuring out why, isolating the variables by having Poppy and Zoe prepare for their classes together, making the same crafts and planning the same activities, then intercutting the results. Zoe's class doesn't come alive the way that Poppy's does, but not through any real shortcoming of care or concern on Zoe's part—she's just not Poppy.
Hawkins' performance is her successful attempt to answer this question of what makes Poppy different from Zoe, or different from everybody. Poppy isn't magical; but she's talented, energetic, relentlessly engaged in her environment, and incredibly intelligent. Hawkins and Leigh take a character who could have been an obnoxious wide-eyed optimist and turn her into a unique, believable young woman with an exacting wit and nimble perception, always equipped with a comeback. She's the antidote to vapid movie happiness, the anti-Amélie.
I only wish that the film was as light on its feet as Poppy. An escalating series of scenes with her driving instructor, while well-played and suitable to the film's themes, threatens to give Happy-Go-Lucky too much structure. A confrontation with an insane homeless man is a clunky, out-of-place reminder from Leigh that just because his protagonist is peppy, the world is still grim. But this point is already made with much more subtlety by his well-directed cast. It's in the faces of Poppy's friends, her coworkers, even the little children she teaches.
Simply watching Poppy interact with people and the way Hawkins handles the performance, baring the multiple layers of her character's charm and intellect, is enough to carry the movie. Leigh begins the film with a quick series of crisp snapshot scenes that build momentum: We watch Poppy party with friends, get home in the wee hours, wake up to help Zoe nurse her hangover, then start her day—giving the impression that we have just dropped in on this funny, sisterly, saintly woman. A line of dialogue toward the end of the film—"we've got a long way to go"—indicates that we are not meant to have experienced a self-contained complete story, but a mere snippet of a remarkable woman's life. Happy-Go-Lucky has an unforced flow, driven by the steady, often silly stream of Poppy's zingers, comebacks, one-liners and mini-monologues. It's a tangible portrait of an incorruptible soul, told and acted with enough clarity to actually teach us that Poppy's rigorous engagement with everyone she encounters can result in a joyous outlook that is optimistic without being naïve.