Mike Leigh’s kitchen-sink realism usually comes in a grim shade, so it’s a relief to discover that the title of his newest, Happy-Go-Lucky, isn’t meant ironically. Rather, it’s a perfect summation of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a 30-year-old single Londoner who lives with best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), teaches grade school, and coasts along on a cloud of Pollyannish cheer. Poppy confronts life with an effervescent smile on her face and a joyful retort on her tongue, a beacon of optimism even during the darkest unpleasantness, whether it be her pregnant little sister’s insecurity-motivated outburst, a student’s sudden violence against classmates, or sessions with her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan), a lonely xenophobic egomaniac who’s infuriated by Poppy’s indefatigable good spirits. As is often the case with Leigh’s work, Happy-Go-Lucky’s narrative is a slice-of-life rather than a heavily plotted three-act construction, content to temporarily spend time in the company of Poppy, whose bright demeanor (which closely borders full-on nuttiness) is so upfront and consistent that it’s occasionally taken by others to be a mean, ulterior motive-driven joke. Leigh’s portrait sporadically flirts with mushiness, yet melodramatics are avoided thanks in part to the director’s restraint as well as, more fundamentally, to Hawkins’ marvelously unpretentious performance, which initially seems destined for corny shtick but is imbued with disarmingly genuine heart that’s made complicated and authentic by her sporadic flashes of seriousness and sadness. Leigh assiduously fixates on the effects (positive, negative and simply befuddled) Poppy’s sincerity has on those she encounters, and how her upbeat spirits are a means of coping with life’s ups and downs. Just as Poppy’s ultimate romantic success is the byproduct of her unwillingness to be constrained or dispirited by the surrounding world – a notion subtly evoked by the credit sequence, in which constricting framing of merry Poppy’s bike-riding eventually recedes to reveal a widescreen image – his legitimately uplifting film benefits from its own refusal to unduly sentimentalize or moralize.
(2008 New York Film Festival)