HAPPY-GO-LUCKY written and directed by Mike Leigh, 118 minutes, rated R.
Initially, the new Mike Leigh film, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” is so overbearing, it’s a turn-off. Its central character, a 30-year-old British schoolteacher named Poppy (Sally Hawkins), is an unhinged blur on the screen, a light shining so brightly, you can’t help but want to lift a hand to your eyes and block her out. Forever.
She’s so cheerful, chummy and chatty, her big smiling mouth filling the screen with the sort of appalling happiness that suggests she has snorted Colombia out of its stockades of cocaine, that you look around for a switch to turn her off.
Only there isn’t one, and so you sit there watching her, tolerating her, wishing that she’d just tone it down. But no. When her bike gets stolen, she doesn’t get angry. She giggles and says, “I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to it.” When she is rudely ignored time and again by a bookstore clerk, who wants nothing to do with her, she tip-toes to the door, wishes him a good day and then skips away.
Certainly, you think, this is a put-on. But then Leigh, working from his own script, reveals that it isn’t. Poppy is her own caffeine. She’s the very definition of the indefatigable Pollyanna. She’s a force of positivity thrown into a world that is so cynical and disenfranchised (for good reason), it doesn’t know quite how to handle someone with such high spirits. And so it often doesn’t handle them well.
For Poppy, it’s good that those close to her understand her and love her, including her roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman, wonderful) and her younger sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn), the latter of whom is as dark and as brooding as Poppy is bright.
The conversations between them are as energetic as anything you’d find in an Robert Altman movie, with the actors talking over each other in ways that are so natural, the movie deepens its appeal as it unfolds. The rat-a-tat-tat of their words hits the screen with force. For an actor, none of this is easy to pull off, and yet here, with this talented cast, the effect is seamless.
Unfortunately for Poppy, for those who don’t know her, she’s an annoying mystery. Take, for instance, her weird driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). Here is a man who so defines road rage — whether it’s toward the person he’s teaching or those on the road around him — you believe that he hasn’t had a good day in his entire life.
He is the film’s hostile core, so infused with anger, there are moments when you consider that his life will end by that elusive, heated form of death known as spontaneous combustion. It’s how Poppy handles him — with a kindness he has never known and then, when their relationship grows more intense, with a directness that cuts through him — that sets the film up for its best scene.
It won’t be revealed here, but what you take from it and other scenes in the movie is that happiness is a choice for Poppy. At first, you think it just comes naturally to her, as if she’s genetically coded to be cheerful regardless of what assails her. But by the end of the movie, when you’ve seen her facade slip a little, you understand that this is the person she has chosen to be, and that the choice isn’t easy to hold up given the negativity swirling around her.
As such, a kind of admiration sinks in — and with it, this odd little movie lifts.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.