Mike Leigh’s ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ Giggles

There have been some wonderful films lately that have looked at those of us who present what we might call our “wounded” face to the world. People who seem angry, self-absorbed and/or unapproachable. As we discussed in last month’s column, Gran Torino and Ghost Town both illuminate the pain, sadness and vulnerability that lie just beneath the surface of those wounded faces and personalities.

Now comes the perfectly titled Happy-Go-Lucky so that we can see the polar opposite of that wounded face.

In Happy-Go-Lucky, the enchanting British actress Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a schoolteacher who always wears a smile. Even when her bicycle is stolen early in the film, her response is not one of anger, but one of wistfulness. “Oh, dear. I never got to say good-bye” is her only comment.

Throughout the film, Poppy has a smile, a giggle and a laugh for everyone with whom she comes into contact. Her friends rely on her to bolster their spirits, as do her co-workers at the elementary school where she works. And she doesn’t disappoint them. Even when she throws out her back and, in pain, has to go to a chiropractor for an adjustment, she never stops smiling.

Poppy is an adventurous soul, as well, willing to try new things on the spur of the moment. In the most hilarious sequence of the film, she decides to learn how to be a Flamenco dancer and gets a surprising and uproarious lesson in “claiming your space” from the teacher. Underneath the fun of this sequence, however, lies a poignant and important metaphor for Poppy. When you are so unrelentingly cheerful in the world, do people just take you for granted? Do you disappear because you are never needy? As in, “Oh, Poppy, she’s fine. She’s always fine.”

What lies at the core of Poppy? Is she really that happy or is she hiding a deep hurt, the effects of which she seeks to avoid by putting on a happy face? That’s the conventional wisdom, about people who go around seemingly happy all the time, isn’t it? They can’t really be that happy, can they? What dark secret lurks in their depths that, unleashed, would make those “wounded” faces look mild by comparison?

In Poppy’s case, the answers are simple: Yes, she really is a happy person. Imagine that!

As a teacher, Poppy reflects her sunny disposition with her pupils, but she also recognizes a child’s emotional pain in the form of a student who is afraid to go home. When she has to be serious, she embraces that role with love and compassion, as well.

Sure, Poppy has her share of issues just like everyone else, but she really does look at the bright side of life and, as a result, it’s her happiness that rubs off on others, not their misery that rubs off on her. Poppy’s biggest test in that regard comes in the form of a driving instructor named Scott.

Brilliantly played by Eddie Marsan (whom you may recognize from The Illusionist), Scott is yang to Poppy’s yin. Pompous, impatient and judgmental, Scott is so seething with rage that he finally explodes. The final sequence between them is electric and compassionate.

Happy-Go-Lucky is a small, charming, eccentric gift of a film from British filmmaker Mike Leigh. It reminds us that happiness is a choice. We choose the lenses through which we experience life. Poppy chooses the lightest lens she can find on any given day and that’s a wonderful message for all of us.



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