Colorful Seriocomedy About Eternal Optimism

“And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life’s span? If then you cannot do even a very little thing, why do you worry about other  matters?   
                                                                                                                               Luke 12:25-26

Hurtful and arduous circumstances in this world are more abundant than any of us will ever know. Society constantly keeps feeding us on stress and worry, and there’s no day going by without someone telling us to plan for the inevitable and to take responsibility for our future. Yet in the face of even the worst situations, no one tells us this universal truth: things are not going to get better, no matter how much we worry. No matter how much we plan and prepare, nothing actually guarantees us anything. However, no matter how unconventional optimism may be, to look at the world with joy need not be viewed as an act of complete ignorance or deep denial, but should be considered as a recognition of a hope that is in fact greater than the atrocious times we could ever take on. It is the truth about optimism one can learn from writer/director Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky.

In this craftily small dramatic vehicle, a persistently charming and charismatic thirty-year-old London primary teacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins) always has a smile on her face, and does her best to brighten the days of those around her by making small talk and cracking jokes. For the past ten years, Poppy has lived with her best friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), a fellow teacher whose sardonic attitude towards life functions as the unblemished counterbalance to Poppy’s enthusiastic charm. After her bike is stolen, Poppy decides that it’s time she took driving lessons. Almost instantaneously, Poppy and her uptight instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), clash. Yet, it seems that there’s more to this teacher-student relationship than surface appearances would suggest. After accompanying her colleague Heather (Sylvestra Le Touzel) to a tango class taught by a particularly passionate instructor (Karina Fernandaz), Poppy connects with kindly school social worker Tim (Samuel Roukin). Naturally, Tim can’t help falling for a woman of such boundless compassion, but that’s another story for  her increasingly jealous driving instructor who reacts to the news of her most recent romance. How this touches not only Poppy’s worldview but also the outlook of those around her makes us reexamine the unsinkable sense of optimism in truthful and deeply life-affirming exploration.

At first, that seems to be all there is to the story, but this film is about a great deal more, and goes very much deeper. The genius of Leigh lies in establishing a loose, semi-improvised narrative with innumerable scenes which will not drive the narrative structure forward, but offer us lustrous behavioral and psychological sagacity into characters that we would almost certainly miss in more tightly scripted films. As a whole, the film benefits not only from the excellent performances, but from its warm emotional core and its infectious love of people, topped off by a mature temperance about human limitations that thoroughly authenticates everything preceding it. Happiness is one of the most enigmatic and oftentimes the most elusive of all human qualities, and Leigh’s seriocomedy explores eternal optimism through Poppy as his ongoing canon of odes to working-class leading quiet lives of discomfort and disconsolateness. This practically plotless story is developed by Leigh’s traditional means of collective cast improvisation, and it may require a brief, uneasy moment of acclimation, but that’s mostly because Leigh’s vision is so singularly, uncompromisingly compassionate.

In her star-making role, arguably one of the most difficult roles one could be assigned, earning her Best Actress award at 2008 Berlin Film Festival, the extraordinary Hawkins, confronts the ills of the world with high-spirited exuberance and a series of lighthearted witticism. She makes the character work, especially during the quiet scenes. To achieve that, she must smile, influence people with her vivacious nature, reflect her unshakable optimism, and be lively at almost all times, and do it naturally and convincingly. That’s a thousand times harder than playing Erin Brockovich, obviously. In one scene where she works with the little boy, we see that she’s not at all superficial, but can listen, observe, empathize and find the right note in response.

It’s easy to feel distanced from her at first glance because her attitude feels both extremely grating and contemptibly naive. Yet Leigh masterfully spends much of the story dissipating our misperceptions about this most peculiar young woman. Her free-spiritedness, for some, may indicate her lack of intelligence. One of her best scenes may be viewed as surreal and theatrical, but profoundly effective. In the shadows under a rail line, she hears a strange chanting coming from an abandoned lot, and meets an agitated, mentally ill vagrant (Stanley Townsend), mumbling and ranting about real or imagined fears and injustices. It is possible nobody has spoken to him in days or weeks. She listens to him, speaks with him, asks if he’s hungry. From her nervous back-and-forth movements, we know she shares that fear and it soothes him like magic. She speaks to the man not patronizingly, but completely on the level. As she does, Leigh cuts to a close-up of the man’s face, as grateful tears well up in his eyes. Poppy skillfully exudes humanism, and shows us that such humanism truly has merit. It would help if we were all a little bit more compassionate and vulnerable to one another. We also get these glimpses into Poppy’s deeper regions. Poppy reminds us that in these cynical, materialistic, intolerant times we are still capable of enjoying life, appreciating simple pleasures, being happy. Little do we know that our happiness is usually predicated on a particular lifestyle and shared only with similar subscribers. We should, like Poppy, embrace diversity.

While the supporting cast is all solid, the other enormously essential performance is Marsan who pulls us into Scott, making us feel the poor man’s inner rage, turmoil, and deep-seated confusion, to such a degree that he nearly out-acts Hawkins. As an evidently fuming/uptight/repressed/cynic/misanthropic/irascible/misogynist driving instructor Scott, whose intensely confused affinity with her sudden blazes up into a devastating emotional battle. Gravitated to Satanism as a way of life, Scott, as Poppy’s spiritual opposite, repeatedly screams, “En-Ra-Ha, En-Ra-Ha, En-Ra-Ha,” at her during their lessons and orders her to “focus on the eye at the top of the pyramid!” We can see early on that he doesn’t believe any of Poppy’s efforts to alleviate his anger, and indeed, that her attempts in his direction are not merely wasted but seriously counterproductive. The limits of this humanism are revealed here. The beleaguered relationship between them brings Poppy to a moment of life-changing disenchantment that will transmit her with a very small more degree of wisdom than she initially demonstrated.

As invigorating as it is to find a film that leaves you smiling, it’s something much more exceptional to discover a film that makes you think about what a commitment to happiness really means. In a world where there is less space to share by ever-increasing populations, the tolerance and human kindness exhibited by Poppy is exemplary. Happy-Go-Lucky deserves to be named one of the most celebrated films of 2008.

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