Monday, October 20, 2008
By Elise Nakhnikian
“We make our own luck in life, don’t we?” says Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) to her friend Poppy (Sally Hawkins) at the end of Happy-Go-Lucky.
Mike Leigh’s latest feature is a lighthearted yet serious answer to Zoe’s question. “An anti-miserabilist film,” as the director called it after a screening at the New York Film Festival, it examines what it takes to live a good life. “We are living in tough times, and it’s very easy – and appropriate – to be gloomy,” Leigh said. “But there are people out there who are getting on with it, not least among them the teachers. You can’t be a teacher without being an optimist and caring for the future. Poppy is the embodiment of that.”
When we first see Poppy, she’s riding her bike through town, wearing what we come to learn is a perpetual smile. As engaged with the world as her grammar-school students, she sees everything she passes and likes everything she sees.
It takes us a little longer to figure out what to make of her. After all, movie audiences aren’t used to seeing giggly, friendly young women presented as anything but airheads. But it soon becomes clear that Poppy’s anything but a ditz.
Happy-Go-Lucky moves as briskly through Poppy’s life as she does, telling us what we need to know without ever feeling forced or formulaic. As in most of Leigh’s films, nothing momentous happens, yet every moment feels full. We get to know Poppy by watching her interact with other people, including Zoe, her best friend, roommate, and world travel companion for about 10 years; Suzy, her hapless but goodhearted sister; and Scott (Eddie Marsan), her driving instructor.
The scenes with Scott, a splenetic misanthrope, form the core of the movie as the two tool around London in a claustrophobically small car, their diametrically opposed world views bumping up against each other. Scott spouts bitterness and bile, shouting at Poppy about her failings and everyone else’s. Poppy teases him good-naturedly, trying to coax him out of his shell. Their back and forth yields considerable humor and tension before culminating in a scene that I won’t ruin by describing it here.
In general, this movie lifts your spirits like a helium balloon, but that scene and others filled me with dread. My fear that something awful was about to happen to Poppy is partly thanks to the story’s spontaneity. Leigh creates his films by collaborating with his actors, whom he casts after only loosely deciding what he wants to explore.
For Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh and his cast spent half a year in rehearsal, developing the characters and workshopping scenes before he wrote the script. “The job is to discover the film by making it,” he says. As a result of that process, his films retain the veracity of those initial exercises and the unpredictability of life itself.
I’m sure I was also conditioned by countless other movies and TV shows. How many times have we seen a woman in peril pay heavily for her good intentions or naivete – or sheer bad luck? How many damsels in distress have needed rescuing by stalwart heroes?
But when Poppy gets herself into a fix, she gets herself out. What’s more, she handles every situation with grace, compassion and a contagious air of calm. “This is a film about somebody who can deal with things,” says Leigh. “This is a woman who confronts things. We look through her eyes, which are open and honest and non-judgmental.”
It’s startling to realize how refreshing that courage and competence feel, even in these supposedly post-feminist days. The same goes for the detailed and authentic depiction of the female friendships that sustain Poppy.
With her wide open heart, mobile face, and empathetic eyes, Hawkins’ Poppy is a study in pure goodness – what Christ might look like if he came back as a woman in modern-day London. When Scott tells her “you celebrate chaos,” he’s right, for a change, though he chooses a typically negative way to describe the constant churning of life.
Those same traits make her a great teacher. The intervention she engineers for a kid who’s been bullying others is a beautiful thing to behold, kind and loving and delicately sensitive. Oh yeah, and her kids actually learn stuff.
The contrast between Poppy’s nurturing teaching style and Scott’s punitive one couldn’t be clearer. But apparently Leigh doesn’t want to imply that Poppy’s way is the only one. Another alternative is presented in the form of a charismatic flamenco teacher (Karina Fernandez) whose classes Poppy attends. That teacher lays herself so open, while explaining the emotional core of the art, that she has to leave the classroom to compose herself. It’s a funny scene, but she maintains both her dignity and the respect of her students, who appreciate the lengths she will go to for them.
Josh Rosenblatt, a reviewer for the Austin Chronicle, recently wrote about how we most love the movies that “provide us the greatest understanding of ourselves. Either the selves we are or the selves we want to be.”
I don’t know about you, but Poppy is the best fictional role model I’ve come across in ages. More than any souped-up superhero or self-serious goon with a gun, her story speaks to what it takes to be a good person, making the most of your own life and brightening others.