DVD Release Date:  March 10, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  October 17, 2008 (limited); October 24, 2008 (wider)
Rating:  R (for language)
Genre:  Comedy-Drama
Run Time:  118 min.
Director:  Mike Leigh
Cast:  Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin, Karina Fernandez

Everyone needs a Poppy.  She is the personification of Happy-Go-Lucky, a breath-of-fresh-air kind of movie that is sure to do more than put smiles on peoples faces (though it will, and often) and actually lift their tired, world-weary spirits.  But it’s also one of dramatic and thematic consequence, expressed with benevolence.  Poppy won’t only inspire you to lighten up but to also lighten the burdens of others.

Eschewing a definitive narrative arc, British indie-auteur Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies) brings his improvisational approach to this episodic character piece.  Yet where most of his previous efforts have been unflinchingly raw, Happy-Go-Lucky is unabashedly whimsical.  It’s a visit into the life of Poppy, a single, 30-year-old grade school teacher with a carefree approach to life.  Even the most serious stick-in-the-muds or ill-tempered buzzkills (like her driving instructor) actually draw out her personality rather than extinguishing it.

Poppy is a joyful nonconformist.  She laughs in the face of trouble, smirks at pretense, giggles through physical pain, and doesn’t even let theft of property get her down.  She has a gift of taking the edge off, whether by playfully pestering friends or (for her own catharsis) ending a tough day by bouncing on a trampoline.  She’ll even wave “hi” or offer a bubbly “hello” to complete strangers as she bikes through North London.  She’s not merely someone who won’t allow anything to keep her down; she impulsively wants to bring everyone up.

Her relentless charm initially belies a deeper thoughtfulness and compassion.  Though she may appear flighty at first, Poppy also appreciates and takes in the simple things—like a beautiful sky—and that is the strength of her charm.  She’s a free-spirit because she’s so aware of what life has to offer, not blissfully clueless to its challenges.

It is the challenges, in fact, that ultimately reveal her deeper layers and lead to tender moments.  In one subplot at school, she counsels a bully with effort and patience.  In another extended sequence, she shows kindness (possibly even at her own risk) to a mentally-unbalanced homeless man.  But it’s the relationship with Scott, the driving instructor, that offers the most engaging storyline.  Her blithe demeanor clashes with his demand for seriousness, structure and rules.  Each new lesson escalates the tension, but it’s fascinating to see what evolves under the surface. 

As Scott’s external anger grows, it’s also apparent that Poppy fascinates him.  He is, in fact, attracted to her, drawn to her, but completely unable to let his guard down and show it.  Scott’s so bound by his deep-seated bitterness that It’s both poignant and unsettling to watch him progressively make things worse with Poppy even though we know he wants just the opposite.  It’s a relationship that does not evolve in the way we’ve come to expect from movies, and it includes a rather intense confrontation, but its power comes in that authenticity.

Heretofore an unknown character-actress (with small roles in previous Mike Leigh films), Sally Hawkins crafts a stunning breakthrough performance as Poppy.  Her embrace of life is infectious and absolute; it involves her whole being—a true “joie de vivre”.  It’s no surprise she took Best Actress honors at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, and she’s sure to be in the Oscar buzz mix as well. 

The rest of the cast—from her close friends to a potential paramour—deftly support Hawkins’ central character, and Karina Fernandez’s earnestly passionate Flamenco dance instructor is an inspired highlight (giving the term “My Space” a hilarious new meaning).  Most compelling is Eddie Marsan as the driving instructor; he achieves the impossible by bringing humanity to a character who becomes increasingly unhinged.  That we care for Scott even as he grows more antagonistic toward Poppy is a testament to Marsan’s skill and deep vulnerability.

Happy-Go-Lucky does not begin with a particular inciting moment nor is there one of closure at the end.  The film enters and exits Poppy’s life in the same way: randomly.  Nevertheless it is a complete film because we’ve seen a complete portrait of this wonderful spirit—one that is endearing, moves us, and that we’d do well to emulate more often than we probably do.  Watching this slice-of-life encourages us to remain undaunted in the face of strife (talk about a timely message!), yet care enough to know that for many it’s a struggle to come to that level of peace.  It is a spirit best defined when someone offers Poppy this bit of realism: “You can’t make everyone happy.”  Poppy’s innocent, sincere reply:  “There’s no harm in trying, is there?”

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Drinking occurs occasionally, and drunkenness follows (in the context of laughing, fun, having a good time, etc.).
  • Language/Profanity:  Profanities (including the “F” word) are heard throughout, but not relentlessly so.  Occasional suggestive innuendos. 
  • Sex/Nudity:  A group of girlfriends talk and joke about cleavage while drunk.  Poppy uses fish fillets to stuff her bra.  When Poppy visits her osteopath, she is in her undergarments during the examination (but no actual nudity is shown).  Poppy and her boyfriend kiss passionately and begin disrobing, but the scene is cut short before going where those moments are clearly headed.
  • Violence/Other:  A moment late in the film comes close to physical violence against Poppy, but it remains largely an extreme verbal tirade.  Still, it maintains a legitimately threatening tone.

 

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of the "Steelehouse Podcast,” along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here.  You can also subscribe to the "Steelehouse Podcast” through iTunes.