Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a life-loving, irrepressibly cheerful, Pollyanna-type primary school teacher who is thirty years old, single, and infinitely optimistic and accepting. She lives with her best friend and flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) in London. She is tested by a repressed driving instructor with anger problems (Eddie Marsan), and tests him in turn. She has exciting flamenco lessons, an encounter with a homeless man, a row with her pregnant sister, and a love-affair with the social worker guiding one of her students.
The lead character in Mike Leigh’s new film Happy-Go-Lucky is a terrific comic heroine, even if she’s the sort of person who’d drive you nuts in real life. That’s because – as the title would have it – primary school teacher Poppy approaches life like she’s a kid at an amusement park.
She laughs at everything, and not even worrying when bad-tempered mortals try to bring her down.
Mike Leigh’s movie doesn’t have a traditional story. We see Poppy party with her friends, visit her dour family and help a violent student. But Happy-Go-Lucky’s best scenes – dramatically and comically – are between Poppy and Scott, her insanely intense driving instructor. He really challenges Poppy’s optimism.
Mike Leigh is best known for grim dramas but here delivers a resolutely upbeat movie. It’s like a social realist Amelie, with Poppy believable but also not of this world.
Leigh’s improvisational style of Directing keeps his actors fresh. The perpetually grinning, bird-like Sally Hawkins convinces as Poppy, though some of her banter with her flatmate Zoe feels forced. But her scenes with Eddie Marsan’s madman Scott are pitch perfect, making us laugh as we perch on the edge of our seats.
I expected Happy-Go-Lucky to be an ironic title, but it isn’t. Instead it makes aphorisms like 'Can’t make everyone happy, but there’s no harm in trying" – seem like logical antidotes to cynicism.
As a feel-good manifesto, Happy-Go-Lucky rates four stars.