Happy-go-lucky is a term that smacks of anachronism in both diction and meaning. Conjunctively evocative of will-o-the-wisp and devil-may-care, merry-go-rounds and tilt-o-whirls, any present use of the term usually implies irony or condescension. The word, and whomever it might describe, can't possibly survive in today's jaded world. Coming from a filmmaker who has put his share of characters through reality's ringer ("Naked," "Career Girls," "Vera Drake"), and has at times (though not as often as some would assert) slipped into theatrical caricature, the title of Mike Leigh's latest film, "Happy-Go-Lucky," would seem like an invitation to watch the other shoe drop.
But from a buoyantly scored bicycle ride during the opening credits to a final foot-pedaled raft across a park pond, Leigh lets his heroine possess the modifier without judgment or contradiction. This conviction challenges Leigh, his peppy protagonist, and the audience to take it straight, with rewards as sweet and modest as an unprovoked smile, and just as profound.
Indefatigable Poppy (Sally Hawkins, giving hands-down the performance of the year), thirty, single, and flirty, all bangs and bangles, long legs and toothy grins, lives in north London, teaches grade school, parties with her friends and forges a strange serpentine path to betterment: trampoline therapy, flamenco classes, and driving lessons. At once an overgrown child and the only complete adult in the room, Poppy's inexhaustible verbal and physical energy frequently skirts the insufferable before pulling back to a soothing, saucer-eyed empathy.
Optimism and good humor subject Poppy to a slew of sour counteractivity, from impatience and condescension to resentment and malice, but not only does she persevere, she's always trying to make things and people better. Just typing those words I'm overcome by a desire to gag myself with a soup ladle, but somehow Poppy doesn't have that effect; she's too salty for sainthood, too aware to be deluded, too proud, self-protective, and worldly to be a mere agent of goodness. Which makes her difficult to shake, no matter how aggressively she courts annoyance. The more time spent with Poppy, with her rhythms and finely modulated moods, when she's with friends, strangers, or alone, the fuller she comes into being.
Disregarding dramatic convention, Leigh refuses to show her as broken or incomplete, in need of a course correction or good man. Casually, quietly feminist, "Happy-Go-Lucky" is the Anglo working-class girl's answer to "Sex and the City." In an early sequence, Poppy and her thirtysomething friends bop with pints aloft to Pulp's "Common People" in the club, then stumble home for a nightcap. They slump on the sofa, unstuff their bras and collegially take the piss, blowing off steam on a Friday night with nary a mention of men. Sure, they'd like to meet "fit" guys, but they're not about to waste the weekend waiting around for them. They crash, sleep late, then make one another toast and veg in bed. Poppy and her roommate Zoe (sensitive foil Alexis Zegerman), also a teacher, do a little prep work for Monday (making bird masks out of paper bags, chasing each other around the room), then hit the pub again for one more round. During an unfortunate trip to the suburbs, Poppy's nightmare of a pregnant sister accuses her of loneliness and disaffection. "I love my life," she says, and not only do we believe it, we've seen that it's true.
Poppy's ambiguous encounters with an unstable driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) culminate in door-slamming discord, but the relationship is illustrative of the limits and dangers of Poppy's (never naive, but nevertheless willful) generosity while never developing into a central conflict. The film's greatest struggle might be with its audience. At various points in "Happy-Go-Lucky" we're invited to see Poppy as simply too much: a bookseller's silence invites a monologue, a handsome doctor ignores machine-gunned come-ons, and even the high-strung driving instructor has a right to some bewilderment. Leigh presented a similar challenge in "Naked," with David Thewlis's Johnny as the misanthropic negative to Poppy's optimist. In our era of gloomy superheroes and seductive serial killers, Poppy's now the harder sell.
Stealthy-smart, PJ Harvey-sexy, supernaturally expressive, and several disarming steps ahead of everyone else, Hawkins's full-bodied singularity calls to mind none other than the queen of mesmerizing overdrive, Gena Rowlands. Shot from above, she's flat on her back and stripped to a goofy ensemble of pink bra, orange panties, and flowery black tights; at the chiropractor's touch she winces and giggles, then gently jokes to put him at ease. She's daft and vulnerable and often damn near impossible to comprehend, but she's a marvel. And whether or not she's licensed, she's always driving.
[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]