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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 16.67%
Average: 16.67%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 6 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Who's That Girl?"
5 stars

Although there are plenty of extraordinary scenes on display in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the wonderful new work from acclaimed filmmaker Mike Leigh, the one that completely won me over to its side comes right at the beginning. After watching our heroine, Poppy Cross (Sally Hawkins), riding blissfully through the streets of London on her bicycle during the opening credits, she enters a bookstore and attempts to make cheerful small talk with a clerk who seems to take her friendliness as a personal affront. Undeterred, she leaves the shop and discovers that her bike has been stolen in the interim. At this point, she does not yell, curse, wail or do any of the things that most people might do in such a situation. Instead, all she does is quietly remark to herself “I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.” On paper, those words may seem highly unlikely--the kind of self-consciously quirky banter that sounds way too forced to be believed and yet, in only a few minutes of screen time, Leigh and Hawkins have managed to create and establish a character so completely that not only does that exclamation not sound like it is too good to be true, it feels like exactly the thing that she would say under the circumstances. It is a great little moment--the kind that most films would kill for--and it turns out to be only the first of many in what is both one of the best films of 2008 and one of the finest films to date from a man commonly regarded as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.

You may very well know a person like Poppy and if you don’t, I suspect that deep down, you may wish that you did. She is a 30-year-old schoolteacher who has somehow managed to go through life without ever losing the sense of cheerful optimism that most people find themselves shedding in an effort to get through the grind of daily life. Not Poppy--she dresses in vibrantly colorful clothing, she is almost never seen without a bright smile on her face and she does everything she can to brighten the attitudes of everyone that she encounters with a joke or a friendly comment. However, she is neither a flighty dimwit nor someone who uses her round-the-clock cheeriness to mask her inner pain and turmoil. As we get to know her, we discover that she is smart, capable, a loyal friend and sibling, funny, ironic and fully aware of the absurdities and pains of the world even as she tries to avoid succumbing to them. She is also a excellent teacher to boot--when she discovers that one of her young students is bullying some his classmates, she handles the situation with an uncommon degree of sensitivity and tact. Most of the people who have known her for a while--her fellow teachers, her longtime roommate (Alexis Zegerman) and her younger sister (Kate O Flynn)--adore her and those who aren’t immediately put off by her relentlessly cheerful demeanor, such as a hunky and level-headed social worker (Samuel Roukin) whom she meet while dealing with the bully, are more often than not beguiled by her completely disarming manner.

Of course, not everyone in Poppy’s immediate orbit finds her demeanor to be that delightful. At one point, Poppy ventures out to the suburbs with her roommate and younger sister to visit her pregnant older sister (Caroline Martin) and brother-in-law (Oliver Maltman) and the fairly humorless older sibling takes the opportunity to tell Poppy “I don’t think you are happy” and to insist that she has to forsake her freewheeling ways and join the real world that has given her material comfort but not much in the way of personal fulfillment. However, Poppy manages to calmly and quietly defuse the situation and the next morning, it all seems to have blown over. Then there is Scott (Eddie Marsan), the driving instructor whom Poppy has hired for some driving lessons and a man who is could well be the Bizarro Poppy--he is curt, tightly wound, utterly devoid of humor and incredibly rigid in regards to his teaching methods (which include plenty of arbitrary-yet-inflexible rules, mnemonic devices and an attitude that suggests that ever mistake from a student is a personal affront) and, one presumes, life in general. Needless to say, Poppy’s peppy manner only serves to drive him up a wall while reminding him of his own deep unhappiness and when he develops a crush on her that he soon discovers will go unrequited, it literally drives him over the edge and puts both him and Poppy in a dangerous situation that she has to defuse in much the same way that she handled the problem with the school bully.

Because Leigh’s films have often dealt with grim characters and subjects (his last film, “Vera Drake,” was about a kindly woman whose life and family were thrown into upheaval when she was arrested for being an illegal abortionist), some of the early reviews of “Happy-Go-Lucky” have suggested that it is a significant break from his earlier films. While it definitely has a cheerier vibe to it than anything that he is done since his little-seen 1997 effort “Career Girls,” this is a film that definitely fits in comfortably with the rest of his filmography. For starters, it has the same willingness to favor character development over the narrative and as a result, we get the chance to simply get to know Poppy and her acquaintances as they interact instead of watching them marching lockstep with any number of silly plot requirements. His longstanding fascination with the intricacies with family relationships, both good and ill, is also on display as well--the sequence with her older sister in the suburbs is so rich with detail and nuance that I can imagine it being spun off into its own equally interesting movie. Best of all, he doesn’t offer up any sort of editorial comment regarding his characters in order to tip us as to how we should feel about them. For example, while Poppy herself has an ironic streak about her, he doesn’t have one regarding her--he never underlines her scenes to overemphasize her kookiness or to let us know that she is some kind of weirdo. He also takes a similar hands-off approach to Scott--yes, he does go off the rails at the end but some of his early anger towards her is somewhat understandable (such as her apparent refusal to leave her high-heeled boots at home during her lessons) and when he realizes that she does have a boyfriend, it is a crushing moment for a cynic who has found someone who seems to love everything and everybody but, alas, not him specifically. In fact, while I was watching “Happy-Go-Lucky,” it reminded me in a strange way of his 1993 film “Naked,” in which David Thewlis played Johnny, an extremely angry young man and his encounters with a group of people over the course of one long night. As Leigh pointed out when I mentioned this to him during an interview, he pointed out that both Johnny and Poppy are idealists who reject the empty comforts of materialism and cynicism--the difference is that Johnny is an embittered idealist while Poppy is anything but.

Although hearing the basic premise of “Happy-Go-Lucky” may make it sound like it is nothing more than the vaguely annoying adventures of a terminally chirpy gal spreading whimsy throughout the land while remaining blissfully oblivious of the world she is inhabiting (and I must admit that when I first began hearing about the film, I did fear that it would be just that kind of film), it soon becomes clear that neither the film nor the characters are anything like that. Without ever losing its sweetheart vibe, it does bring in numerous scenes in which Poppy shows that she is not entirely oblivious to the darkness and despair in the world (such as a hypnotic moment in which she encounters and communicates with a homeless man in a park one night) even though she refuses to be brought down by them. To be able to convey this kind of depth under a veneer of eternal happiness--not to mention to be able to create that sense of eternal happiness without driving viewers up the wall in the bargain--requires an actress of considerable gifts to properly pull off a role that isn’t nearly as simple as it seems. Luckily, Leigh has found just that sort of actress in Sally Hawkins (with whom he previously worked in “All Or Nothing” and “Vera Drake”) and the result is one of the best performances of the year. Hawkins is an absolute delight right from the start but she is also equally adept in finding a more serious attitude in an instant when it is required (the scene between her and Marsan after his rage has nearly caused them to get into a car accident during their last lesson together is simply amazing). As a result, Hawkins has created arguably the most completely likable female character to come across a movie screen since Audrey Tautou portrayed “Amelie” and I have a sneaking suspicion that her work here as Poppy my supercharge her career in the way that “Amelie” did for Tautou.

Equal parts sweet, funny, serious and delightful, “Happy-Go-Lucky” is one of the best films of 2008. However, I am well aware that the basic premise of the film may strike some moviegoers as either to flimsy or too irritating to sustain an entire film. Although I have just spent nearly 1600 words trying to convince you of its worth, let me see if I can figure out a way of indicating whether or not you should see the film. If you think that the central concept of the film sounds interesting, you need to go out and see this right now. If, on the other hand, you are of the belief that spending two hours in the company of a person like Poppy could well be the cinematic equivalent of torture, then you really need to go out and see this right now.

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originally posted: 10/24/08 15:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/01/11 Captain Slog Very engaging. I'm in love with Poppy 4 stars
3/14/09 Saif A lovely, lovely film. Superbly acted and expertly directed and gently rebellious. 5 stars
12/22/08 jackson delightful; Sally Hawkins gives an endearing one-of-a-kind performance 4 stars
12/20/08 amy warning: this movie will make you fall in love 5 stars
11/04/08 Adam Fun characters, but lots of pointless scenes and not much story. Not sure about Poppy. 3 stars
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  DVD: 10-Mar-2009


  DVD: 10-Mar-2009

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