It’s hard to imagine a more infectious performance than the one Sally Hawkins gives as Poppy, the central character in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
First glimpsed onscreen riding a bike through London – and smiling for the whole ride – she’s like a living incarnation of one of those laughing Buddha statues, with her Zen-like willingness to joke and chortle about everything and everyone she encounters, just to lighten their psychic load.
In the very first scene, she parks her bike and goes into a used-book store, where she encounters a grumpy, taciturn clerk, who barely responds to her attempts at conversation, let alone her compulsive joshing. Poppy walks out undeterred, leaving a joke in her wake – only to discover that her bike has been stolen. Her response? A shrug and a tossed-off line about not even having a chance to say goodbye to what apparently was a trusted longtime companion. And then life goes on.
Leigh’s first film since 2004’s “Vera Drake,” “Happy-Go-Lucky” is a total delight: an anti-Hollywood movie that takes the tropes of a standard romantic comedy and turns them upside down.
You’ve seen this story before: Eccentric single elementary-school teacher, a lover of life, encounters her male opposite – and after rubbing each other the wrong way, they rub each other the right way.
Not in Leighland.
By now, Leigh’s method of working is well-known: He gathers actors, works out characters and a plot, improvises scenes, then creates the script based on that process. The result brings fictional characters to life with a reality that rarely feels scripted or premeditated.
Indeed, it takes a few minutes before Leigh lets Poppy’s story flower and you get a handle on where the movie might be going. The opening few minutes are almost slice-of-life, as Poppy loses her bike, goes clubbing with her roommate Zoe (another teacher, played with dry hilarity by Alexis Zegerman) and her sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn), then decides that rather than replace the bike, she’ll learn to drive.
But it’s not until after a school-prep session with Zoe (where they make bird masks out of grocery bags) and a day at school that we get around to actually putting Poppy in the car with a driving instructor.
The instructor is Poppy’s exact opposite: Scott (Eddie Marsan) is uptight, officious and never in the mood for jokes. He announces driver’s-ed catchphrases (“Peep and creep”), defines them – then slings them at her as she drives, shouting them like a drill instructor. (“En-ra-ha!” is the hilarious code for “Watch your rearview mirror!”)
Poppy, however, supplies a running commentary of jokey asides, consciously or unconsciously undermining Scott, who feels compelled to interrupt his tutelage to respond to each little gag that Poppy utters, as if she expected a serious answer to her flippant snippets.
Her relationship with Scott is the film’s centerpiece and their scenes in the car are hysterical, the irresistible force meeting the immovable object with jokes popping and tempers flaring. We get hints of the source of Scott’s barely-banked anger (he rails against “the system” and, at one point, fearfully locks the car doors when a harmless-looking pair of black bicyclists roll by). And we also get a sense of Scott and Poppy groping for common ground.
Other plot points insert themselves without being insistent about it. Poppy catches one of her students repeatedly hitting a classmate – and brings in a social worker to see why the bullying child is himself troubled. Eventually, she and the social worker (Samuel Roukin) go on a date and hit it off.
Leigh isn’t afraid to go off on a tangent – most notably in a scene in which Poppy encounters a hulking homeless man (Stanley Townsend), obviously disturbed, in a blasted industrial no-man’s-land on her walk home after dark. The man utters questions or sentences that get stuck on their first word, repeated over and over – but Poppy responds as though she’s right there on his wavelength.
It’s a fascinating scene – at once full of hope and dread – that reveals much about Poppy and her effect on people, and has absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens before or after. In a less accomplished film, it would have ended in some form of violence, a glimpse of the world’s cruelty, even to this delightful wildflower.
Still, there’s more going on here than a finely etched character study of Poppy, with mirrors that seem to reflect on themselves through the film. Poppy is a teacher and so is Scott; when Poppy tags along with a colleague to a flamenco class, she gets swept up in the dynamic, dramatic style of the dance instructor (Karina Fernandez). The contrasts in demagogic style are striking but Leigh isn’t delivering a message about teaching or teachers. You connect the dots in whatever manner you choose.
In the Hollywood version of this story, Poppy would rescue the abused student (whose problems would be made explicit) and save Scott, reaching that common ground romantically, but only after she discovers that the seemingly nice-guy social worker is actually a flaming jerk.
But, again, this isn’t the Hollywood version.
The one constant throughout is Poppy, a 30-year-old woman who appears to have decided one day to simply be happy (or, more likely given what we see of her family, was simply born that way). Now she’s devoted her life to spreading that sense of joy and enthusiasm to everyone she meets, no matter the circumstances. Her assertive cheeriness may grate on some viewers but give her a chance – she’ll win you over.
That’s a tribute to Hawkins, with her perpetually laughing eyes, slightly horsey smile and collection of deliriously colored clothes and underwear. (In one memorable scene, she has a chiropractic treatment after stripping to a hot pink bra, orange bikini panties – and black fishnet tights.) If this is a disease, Hawkins makes you want to catch it.
Marsan, wonderfully repressed as the nebbish father in this year’s underseen “66,” seethes, erupts and subsides as the deeply unhappy Scott. He tells Poppy that no student he’s ever taught could match this teacher’s devotion to the rules of the road – something he seems to take personally. Marsan gives Scott humanity and vulnerability, adding resonance to his portrayal of the kind of put-upon little man who relishes even the modicum of power conferred on a driving instructor.
I blow hot and cold on Leigh’s films (hated “Naked,” loved “Topsy-Turvy”). When he hits, as he does with “Happy-Go-Lucky,” it’s like opening a magical gift you had no right to expect.