Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 10 October 2008
Source Miramax 35mm print
Categories The 46th New York Film Festival
Between the cheeky pop score and a montage that resembles Bridget Jones’ Diary more than Secrets & Lies, the trailer for Happy-Go-Lucky had me worried. Additionally, the only advance comments I’d heard in regards to the perpetually grinning heroine was that she seemed either daft or mentally challenged. It’s a relief to say that Mike Leigh’s latest is deeper than it first appears, not to mention greatly delightful, a detailed character study of that feared realm more commonly known as adulthood.
It’s a bit ironic that a cheerful person can make us question their sanity, but happiness can be discomforting. It’s difficult (according to Psychology 101) for many people to accept happiness, particularly after prolonged periods of stress and struggle; the change is hard to get used to, as remaining at a standstill, even an unhappy one, is often easier than making small changes toward happiness. There’s a good amount of therapy tucked into Happy-Go-Lucky, and it’s all so deceptively simple that much like Poppy, it takes time to reveal its effects.
Poppy inhabits a vastly colorful London (already a contradiction) complimented by her own brassy outfits, and has optimism combined openness: she’s eager for new experiences and shows the same enthusiasm toward strangers. This lack of wariness (or rather, a lack of the usual, jaded world-weariness) is initially off-putting—Poppy seems to have a few screws loose, or at least have incredible naïveté for a city gal. Poppy’s gradual development from overbearing cheermonger to a flawed but flesh and blood human being correlates to the experiences both she and the audience are exposed to throughout the film. All of this is revealed in pieces; a single scene with Poppy encountering a homeless man talking nonsensically in an abandoned lot screams at first for pepper spray, but later resonates after we’ve seen the entirety of Poppy’s “relationship” with a far more frightening man, her driving instructor (more on him in a bit). While we need time to figure out exactly who Poppy is, we grasp more of her character with each person she encounters within Happy-Go-Lucky, experiences that eventually reveal a woman very sure of herself.
Much of our time in Happy-Go-Lucky is spent getting to know Poppy through social situations—flamenco lessons with a work colleague, weekend trips to visit family members, and nights out with friends. Superfluous as they seem, these moments make up Poppy’s life, and she clearly treasures each and every part of it. Leigh reminds us that the ordinary - friendship, health, having fun - is too often taken for granted, but Poppy doesn’t seem to have fallen into that trap. Rather than fretting over the standard life markers - marriage, children, suburbs, all kindly brought up by her pregnant sister - Poppy is genuinely content with what she has.
Poppy’s cheerful façade does not mask vapidity; rather, there’s a true compassion combined with confidence. As an elementary schoolteacher (a profession perhaps a bit too on the nose), Poppy’s childlike enthusiasm enhances her teaching skills, but is also applicable in the adult world; the way Poppy handles a young boy’s anger at school is vastly similar to the way she works with Scott, her bigoted, rage-inclined driving instructor. Although Scott initially appears to be a narrative obstacle - will Poppy be able to break through his ignorance, or at least get him to smile a little? - Leigh creates more of a circle instead, one that not only shows Scott to be a truly sad human being, but challenges the notion of adult and child. What both Scott and the young boy reveal is the way we are treated as children, the great impact that has on our self-image, and the way we’ll eventually treat others—an obvious concept, but one that’s forgotten when we, especially as adults, pigeonhole people we don’t really know. Scott, a man easily categorized as a one-dimensional joke, a loser, and quite plainly a creep, is shown humanity by Poppy and the movie. Poppy’s ultimate frustration is that she can’t help Scott the way she helps her students, but - as she acknowledges - life isn’t always happy.
One of the questions Happy-Go-Lucky raises is how much we limit our own happiness, based on others’ expectations, fear of change, and neglecting basic needs that are often deemed silly at a certain age. What I loved most about Leigh’s film is its celebration of individuality: to accept your quirks, and learn what makes you, and not others happy. Happy-Go-Lucky should make you smile, but hopefully it’ll motivate you to embrace the day, rent a rowboat, and whittle away the afternoon with friends—or at least do whatever makes you happy.
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