by HELEN GEIB
Happy-Go-Lucky, the new film by acclaimed British writer-director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake), is a portrait of a woman who is always happy. As a class of films, I respect naturalistic slice-of-life dramas more readily than I take pleasure in viewing them. Happy-Go-Lucky did not prove an exception to my general rule, but while I didn’t enjoy it, I did find it interesting. What I found most interesting was the ambiguity inherent in the film’s presentation of its heroine’s perpetual state of happiness.
Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins) is thirty years old. She is single and shares an apartment with her long-time best friend. She teaches an early grade at an elementary school and her hobbies include going to the pub with her friends, trampolining, and taking flamenco lessons with a colleague. Her circumstances, background, social life, and job are entirely ordinary and the weeks of her life depicted in the film are also entirely ordinary.
The only unusual thing about Poppy is her extreme personality. Upbeat, someone who likes to look on the bright side, optimistic, a glass half full type of person: all are inadequate descriptors. Poppy’s normal condition verges on manic. She wants everyone else to be happy too, and acts on that desire by adopting as her usual manner a relentless and aggressive cheeriness.
Her behavior can be irritating, particularly when it is inappropriate to the situation, and I had to caution myself not to be unduly swayed by her less appealing mannerisms. There is a lot to be said for Poppy’s innate predilection to take life as a source of constant happiness. She is ideally suited for her job, has fulfilling friendships and interests, and readily seizes new opportunities. She is really a wonderful teacher of young children, both in the classroom and in her sympathetic perception of her students’ emotional needs. Her own happiness does not blind her to others’ unhappiness and in the case of children, does not compromise her ability to help them.
The ambiguity in the portrait arises from Poppy’s relationships with troubled adults. Her reflexive response when she talks with- seemingly or truly– unhappy people is to cajole them into feeling happier using the force of her own exaggerated good feeling and cheerful demeanor. Her interactions with adults have none of the perceptiveness and modulation she shows when dealing with children.
In a key exchange, Poppy’s roommate cautions her that she can’t make everyone happy. Poppy’s reply is that there’s no harm in trying. Yet, her friend’s warning was prompted by the fallout of a bad situation that Poppy herself largely created by trying in the wrong way to raise the spirits of the wrong person. Rather than celebrating Poppy’s life-affirming attitude, the end of the film caught me contemplating whether she has the capacity to learn from experience.