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Although looks can certainly be deceiving, from the moment we first see the infectious smile and brightly attired Poppy (Sally Hawkins) riding her bicycle through the streets of London, we are instantly drawn in by our heroine. Noteworthy as an unabashedly old-fashioned opening that's reminiscent of vintage MGM golden era films-- we're enchanted within moments of the credit sequence for Mike Leigh's delightfully life-affirming hug of a film, Happy-Go-Lucky. As she greets passersby and waves to others whom we don't see in the overly long extended close-ups, it seems that Hawkins and Leigh (and thereby extension Poppy) are all breaking down the traditional wall between the audience and the art and greeting viewers directly.
If there is any inclusion for Oscar Gold that seems like a sure thing this year, I'd say one of the best bets is for the beguiling chameleon Hawkins to earn herself a nomination for Best Actress, despite the Academy's disillusionment with rewarding comedic performances. In her Berlin Film Festival award-winning performance, Hawkins has been given a star-making role in the tradition of Audrey Tautou in Amelie or Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire.
Although to be fair, she'd first impressed me earlier in 2008 with her work as Colin Farrell's wife in Woody Allen's underrated tragedy Cassandra's Dream. And following that, she gained wider recognition here in the states with her award-winning turn in the BBC/PBS joint broadcast of Masterpiece Theatre's adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion.
While admittedly in Happy, Poppy has the tendency to rattle on incessantly in trying to make the day of everyone she comes across on a regular basis and from the start, we're not sure if we'll be annoyed or enchanted by Poppy but Hawkins wins us over in a matter of seconds. Upon discovering that her bike was stolen, instead of exhaling a string of profanity or kicking the nearest post, Poppy feels remorse that she didn't have a chance to say goodbye but realizes that it's about time for the thirty year old single elementary school teacher to learn to drive.
It's during these driving lessons that Poppy's true character-- namely her humanity and integrity-- get tested as her racist and ultra-religious, obsessive instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) tries chipping away at Poppy piece by piece. From critiquing her gaudy and revealing attire of clanging bracelets and Flashdance era 80's inspired clothing, he's especially irked by her high-heeled boots, which he vows are life-threatening when worn behind the wheel of a car. After surface level insults, gradually his attacks move onto Poppy herself and her endlessly sunny outlook and perpetual choice to be happy. And it's in these precious scenes that Hawkins has some great moments that really allow her to move beyond what may have been—in someone else's hands-- a one-dimensional, flaky character.
Prone to jumping on a trampoline at the end of a hard day to de-stress or coming up with creative arts and craft lesson plans for her students with her best friend and flat-mate of ten years Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and younger sister Suzy (Kate O'Flynn), we follow Poppy through a trying short period of time. And soon, the challenges in dealing with Scott exacerbate her other hurdles. Specifically, they include accidentally injuring her back, taking up Flamenco with a stormy and equally tempestuous teacher, getting to the bottom of a student's misbehavior along with a kindly social worker who has eyes for Poppy, and visiting her angry yuppie sister who resents what she feels are Poppy, Zoe and Suzy's inability to grow up.
Yet is Poppy living in denial or simply choosing an outlook that makes the darkness of the outside world bearable? One can decide for themselves but the bottom line is, coming off of the bleak but critically revered Vera Drake, it's nice to see British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy) crafting something that's so full of optimism and good humor. Describing his work in Entertainment Weekly's Fall Movie Preview, he shared his belief that as far as he's concerned, “we're making an anti-miserabilist film, because we live in tough times and it's easy to be down about many things, about what we're doing to people in the world... [yet in the end, Happy-Go-Lucky is] a love letter to life.”
Although social and political situations creep into Poppy's daily pursuits, none more so than-- aside from Scott's anti-immigration rants-- in a heartbreaking scene where Poppy tries to chat with a rambling, mentally ill homeless man in a tense exchange. However, above all we're always reassured by the far wiser than one would've assumed leading lady who seems to take the greatest heartbreak in stride. Although she's finally told again that she personally can't make everyone happy, she argues that there's “no harm in trying” with a shrug or flip of the hair.
It's lines and actions like these that some would judge naive, yet I considered heroic given how tempting it is to feel like we're powerless in a society of rapid deterioration whether it's via war or the economy or just in the littlest things like strangers saying hi to one another or smiling at those who may be having a tough day. There's a lot to learn from Poppy and although I wouldn't recommend flying about on trampolines anytime soon or perhaps driving in ultra high-heels, it wouldn't hurt if we spent a day just trying to be a bit more considerate to our fellow man.