The title for Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is misleading in the sense that while its main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), is indeed a happy person and looks at life for the good things it offers, she is also a level-headed individual that has real feelings and emotions and not just a head full of ‘hee hees’. This is to say Poppy is not a nitwit that dances around as if there isn’t a care in the world. If you watch this film close enough you may find yourself frustrated at times, but a connection will start to grow between you and Poppy. Sure, she’s happy, and she may be a little naive and unaware at times but for the most part she is living her life just like you or I. She just tends to have a smile on her face for the majority of the journey.
Played with perfect pitch and awareness by Sally Hawkins, the film begins with Poppy’s bike being stolen, a situation she obviously doesn’t appreciate, but she simply says, “I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye,” and decides it is finally time to sign up for driving lessons. Said driving lessons are where Poppy’s enthusiastic lifestyle will meet its first challenge, her instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). He is a cynical man with a vast array of conspiracy theories and complaints that certainly throw a wrench in Poppy’s works in a “gotta keep an eye on that one” kind of way.
As the tension builds in the Poppy and Scott relationship a young bully at school throws her work life as a school teacher in a bind, her pregnant sister challenges her lifestyle, the heart-broken ravings of a flamenco teacher raise a few eyebrows and it all climaxes with a late night encounter with a homeless man. Poppy’s personality effects each of these people in different ways, Scott most of all, but the way the characters deal with it on screen is just as important as how the audience deals with it off screen.
It is my firm belief that this film is more about the audience watching Poppy and her enthusiastic lust for life and her encounters with those she comes in contact with as she lives it, than it is about Poppy or any one character or group of characters on screen. That is the film’s charm. Should you look at this film believing Poppy is an annoying little gnat you will get nothing out of it and you aren’t really looking, or observing how the characters in the film and you are reacting to Poppy.
You must look beneath the surface of this film to truly appreciate it. Happy-Go-Lucky affects you while you watch it, if not more so once it is over. Forget the fact it is called Happy-Go-Lucky. Forget the main character’s name is Poppy (after all it is a nickname for Pauline). These two factors alone make an audience predisposed to expect a film that will be filled with non-stop whimsy and pixie dust, when in fact Poppy is asked to deal with real life situations and events. To no surprise, she deals with them the same as any of us would, she just tries her best to see life for its ups and deal with the downs as they come.
Writer/director Mike Leigh has crafted a film that may be unintentionally interactive, but I believe if you are watching this film closely you will notice yourself making and changing your opinions of Poppy as the film moves along. We live in a cynical world, and I should know, I am a devout contributor, and this film challenges that cynicism to the point that when Poppy’s friend Zoe tells her, “You can’t make everyone happy” and she replies, “There’s no harm in trying is there?” At this point she is asking the audience and you may be surprised at your answer.