You’re not supposed to take to Poppy right off the bat. She rides through London in her wildly colored outfit over the opening credits grinning so cheerily that at any moment a chorus of animated forest creatures threatens to leap out and provide backup as she burst into song. She pops into a bookstore and tries to chat up the utterly resistant cashier as she browses. She is, to put it lightly, irritating as all hell. When she rounds the corner to leave, her bike is gone, and she just sighs “We didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye,” a response which seems to come from a mindset far beyond that of zen happiness, one that might be considered insanity.
But Poppy, embodied marvelously by Sally Hawkins, isn’t insane. After a little more time, she doesn’t even grate. By the film’s end, she without a doubt the year’s most memorable character. “Happy-Go-Lucky” is a looking glass companion to Mike Leigh’s own 1993’s “Naked,” an episodic, deeply intent character study based around someone who, instead of wandering through life disgorging rage and misanthropy, floats along in a glow of irrepressible good will. “Float” is not, perhaps, fair: Poppy, a single, 30-year-old elementary school teacher who shares a flat with her best friend in North London, isn’t living aimlessly, but is so gigglingly open to what comes her way that excursions like flamenco lessons, a visit to a chiropractor, a day trip to a sibling’s house, or a standing weekend appointment with a sour driving instructor become adventures in miniature.
Trust Leigh, professional miserablist, to present such a thorny yet most deceptively simple view of happiness — that, basic needs taken care of, many of us are in the luxurious position of having it be a choice. Poppy’s existence is neither lavish nor lacking, and she’s deliberately not easy to peg by economics or class; she’s got a semi-bohemian but very much adult life, a sister she connects with and another with which she doesn’t, she’s educated and has traveled. The joy with which she approaches everything is neither the result of privilege nor some misplacedly rosy view of a life unfettered. She’s content with what she has and what she is, incapable of casting judgment on those who live differently and unbudgeable when confronted with others who would turn judgment on her. They do, particularly her married sister, who becomes shrilly defensive when no one expresses envy of her suburban house or her pregnancy, and Scott the driving instructor (a very good Eddie Marsan), a bundle of bitterness, loneliness and neuroses whose shell Poppy chips away at over the weeks, only to find it was what was holding him together.
One quibble with a film I find otherwise delightful — there’s a scene of Poppy, out at night, coming across a mentally ill homeless man who she follows to a dark underpass, where he tells her in half-comprehensible shards about something from his past. She’s frightened, but stays with him anyway, trying to figure out if he needs help, trying to understand. There’s never any doubting Poppy’s compassion, but it’s a moment that goes too far for a film that takes place in a sunny but unprettily real world. Happiness is one thing, putting yourself in such an unsafe situation on a whim is another, and it seems irrational. And Poppy, while giddy, is certainly not that.
“Happy-Go-Lucky” is now open in limited release. For more coverage of the New York Film Festival, click here.
[Photo: “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Miramax, 2008]