Gabby, happy, sappy & all too Poppy

After a stellar turn with Vera Drake, director Mike Leigh returns with Happy-Go-Lucky, a novel effort that lives up to its namesake

Sally Hawkins plays Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, a primary school teacher whose glass-half-full mantra is overzealous at best.
Sally Hawkins plays Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, a primary school teacher whose glass-half-full mantra is overzealous at best.
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At a time when we’ve all got hundreds of papers to write, thousands of exams looming on the horizon and millions of grad school applications to turn in, the last thing we need is a film that rubs in one person’s happiness in our oxygen-and-endorphin-starved faces like Drano into a gushing wound. It’s simply too cruel.

Happy-Go-Lucky was indeed a cruel and unusual form of punishment. Not like the guillotine—which would have been short and to the point—it was more like being strapped to a torture rack composed entirely of wildflowers with a herd of My Little Ponies turning the crank. The film chronicles the doings of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a 30-something North Londoner who’s so goddamn contentedly cute I assumed at first that she had invented puppies, sugary cocktails and sunshine all on the same day. Poppy’s bike is stolen, her driving instructor is a nutty conspiracy-theorist with anger management issues and her married, landowner younger sister is pregnant–three feathers of so-called success that Poppy cannot count in her own cap. And to top it all off, one of her students is a brutal classroom bully. Yet through it all, our heroine remains resolutely—perhaps even militantly—cheerful. Of course, Poppy is a primary school teacher. Most of the film is about teaching and how society molds us into the individuals we become. Early on, we get a compare-contrast scene between the teaching styles of Poppy and her flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), who is also a primary school teacher. Poppy, ever the exuberant show-pony, romps around her class with her bird-costumed students, having the collective time of their lives. Zoe, on the other hand, is terrified, paranoid and white-knuckled in the way she manages her class’ bird-costume craft. While Poppy’s students finish the scene cheering, Zoe’s ask her every 30 seconds when snack-time will finally roll around. The solemn brow of Judgment is implicitly raised here.

Which brings me to Poppy’s driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan). The man is a nutter, suffering from and confined by society’s parameters, but unfortunately unable to fit the mold. Apparently, Scott did not benefit from a teacher like Poppy in his younger days because now he—like the influential figures in his life—is an utter control-freak who cannot take responsibility for his own role in the creation of his sordid life.

Scott spouts on and on about how we are spoon-fed a worldview and if we can’t regurgitate it on demand, we are doomed to fall through the cracks. He is also a racist, sexist, homophobe and calls the rear-view mirror Enraha, so it is very difficult to take him seriously. Until he violently self-combusts—and not surprisingly, considering his entire world fits within the steel frame of his instructing vehicle—Scott is a rather comical foil to Poppy’s hokey persona.

Scott is just one of three male characters who warn against the exclusionary nature of society. The first of the others is Poppy’s student, Nick (Jack MacGeachin), who beats up the other kids because he’s angry. He’s also got an earring, so you know for sure he’s got laissez-faire parents and a chip on his shoulder. Poppy—who is luckily also a proactive and caring teacher in addition to being a double shot of sucrose—calls up Tim (Samuel Roukin), the scrummy social worker to put Nick back on track. The second is a homeless and mentally ill man who Poppy curiously tracks down under a bridge on the way home from school one night and finds that he is damaged beyond even the repair of her tireless banter. I guess we are to conclude that the Nicks of the world become Scotts if we, as a society, don’t intervene early in their personal development. Furthermore, if left uncared for, the Scotts of the world turn up under bridges and even a very happy person cannot remedy this situation.

It feels as though Happy-Go-Lucky is an English version of 2001’s Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulin, a critically-acclaimed, whimsical French flick. Sure, Poppy boozes more and has more friends and a better career than Amélie, but this is just a classic example of the one-upmanship inherent in the long-running enmity between the English and the French. This competition extends into the realm of movies featuring smiley-and-saccharine female characters that treat the world all too tenderly like a merry-go-round to the tune of a delightful orchestral score. But while Amélie wallows in introspection, Poppy overextends herself to obnoxious new heights.

In all, wait to see Happy-Go-Lucky until you’ve stopped pulling your hair out due to the hysteria that is these last few weeks of term. Maybe even wait until your hair grows back. Then maybe, just maybe, Happy-Go-Lucky will not seem to be such an unwelcome barrage of all things sappy and sucky.

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