Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) dir. Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin
Mike Leigh’s talents are in top form in this simple yet complex story of a gal who is so happy it causes such discomfort in people.
Poppy is a classic Mike Leigh lead character, a working class British gal, independent yet confident in herself, a drummer who marches to her own beat. We meet her riding her bike around town. She parks and locks up the bike to a fence, but when she returns, it's stolen. Poppy laughs it off with a smile and says to herself under her breath, "we never got to say goodbye." Leigh proceeds to follow Poppy around through her everyday normal life - she works as a kindergarten teacher, she shops, she goes clubbing with her girlfriends etc etc. At times, not matter what the situation Poppy never relinquishes her smile.
Her patience is tested when she decides to take driving lessons to finally learn how to drive. Her instructor is the exact opposite to her - a timebomb of nervous insecurity and pent up anger. From the get go Poppy pushes his buttons and takes the piss out of everything he says and does. There's also Poppy's sisters who continually squabble with familiar sibling rivalry. Lingering resentment rears its head as Poppy’s carefree attitude only emphasizes the stresses on everyone else's lives.
Throughout the first act Poppy’s is so over-the-top jovial her laughter and inability to carry on a conversation without giggling detours of humour was like a frustrating itch on my back I couldn't scratch. At times she was excruciatingly annoying, and so I wondered if I was perhaps too cynical to enjoy the character. But I think this was by Leigh's design, because as the film moves along, although we never see dark corners corners of her past, her saintliness has an edge.
Throughout the film we wait for Poppy’s armour of effervescence to crack. While a dark side is (rightfully) never revealed, Leigh sets up a number of tense situations which shows her lack of maturity. Poppy’s attempt to make conversation with a schizophrenic homeless man had me grinding me teeth and gripping my chair with fear. In this case, her optimism crosses over into naive stupidity. Poppy’s confrontation with her sister reveals the negative influence of her happiness with others around her. And the climax comes in the form in a fantastic cathartic shouting match from Scott the driving instructor, which finally uncorks his true feelings - many of which represent the collective thoughts of the audience.
A number of stand alone scenes, which don’t necessarily add to Poppy’s character add sparkling real world texture to the scenery. Poppy’s Flamenco teacher provides a couple of scenes of comic magic, and Poppy even manages to make a first date, including the nightcap sexual encounter, so effortlessly comfortable.
One of the hallmarks of Leigh’s style is his semi-improvisational methods of storytelling. Leigh’s been known to spend months workshopping with his actors to move a story from a sketches of characters to a full script. The magic of realism takes work, and simply having actors riff off the cuff while the camera’s rolling doesn’t constitute realism. Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” is an example of where improvised and seemingly ‘realistically’ filmed scenes can feel force fed and ironically inauthentic.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" feels completely natural and realistic because Leigh makes the rehearsed seem unrehearsed and thus unobtrusive and invisible. Enjoy.