Today’s Accompaniment: Feel Good playlist (I’m sorry)
Let’s get one thing straight. I’m going to gush about this movie. Objective reviewing is for idiots and gamergaters and I am too excited about this film to care about either of those. I think this film is pure unabashed magic from a truly great filmmaker. It’s a movie that makes me grin from ear to ear, from start to finish.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a 2008 film by filmmaker Mike Leigh. Here he shows an assurance of direction and a complete disregard of story conventions, making a thematic point so strong that it seriously makes me reconsider what it means to be an adult and how we interact with the world.
The film follows Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins), a primary school teacher, as she goes about her life with a wide eyed happiness that leaves everyone who meets her completely bewildered. She’s one of those people that are so happy that it’s actually kind of irritating. I think the best way to describe her would be “peppy”. She seems to glide through life without anything really bothering her. Her bike gets stolen in the very opening scene but she just goes about her day as usual.
As we go through the story, we realise that this isn’t actually true, but not in the way that you would expect. Poppy doesn’t change throughout the story but the way that the story is told informs us of her thought processes. The arc of audience perception, how our view of the characters changes over time, is the magical quality that this film possesses, mainly because the film constantly goes against what you would expect.
She seems vapid, in a way, at the beginning. I think that as humans we associate this joy and wonder at life as being childish, so the film takes that preconception and flips it on its head. There’s a scene at the beginning of the film where this started to dawn on me: She’s sitting around a table with some fellow teachers and they’re saying some really cliched things about their students, about how they’re always indoors and playing games on their computers. Instead of completely going along with them, she uses some critical thinking skills to explain why these children could act the way that they do.
How often do you see characters use actual critical thinking skills in a film? I feel this scene stands out so much to me because it seems to go against so many ideas about conflict in movies. She’s arguing against these people and taking a stand but it’s so passive and altruistic that it could fly under the radar if you aren’t paying attention.
But as soon she gets into it, she backs off. This isn’t a serious argument and isn’t worth affecting her good mood. It shows restraint and sets up, in a story sense, a kind of gauge of her emotions. By that I mean that we as an audience are really looking for her to find her breaking point and this puts into perspective what kind of situation is going to affect her.The film becomes a ticking clock, waiting for a situation to arise that actually makes her lose her cool.
So as the film goes on, we learn more about Poppy. She’s unexpectedly coarse and dirty minded which is jarring every time because of the aforementioned stereotype of the audience to think that Poppy is childish. The stereotype is further reinforced by the fact that she spends a lot of time going to classes such as flamenco dancing and trampolining. The classes that are most important however are her lessons with a driving instructor named Scott, played by Eddie Marsan, which ends up being the real meat of the story, and the part of the film that shows off the central dichotomy of positivism vs cynicism the most.
The performances from both of these people are just incredible. Sally Hawkins in particular is a revelation here. I’m not sure if there is another actor in Hollywood that could embody the very idea of happiness as well as she does. She’s just great and delivers one of my favourite acting performances that I’ve seen. Eddie Marsan is also great here. He’s usually a great comedic actor, but here he exudes creepiness in a delightful way.
Scott is the exact opposite of Poppy. He’s sad and mistrusting and despises society in a really hateful way, buying in to strange conspiracy theories. He’s also, in contrast with Poppy’s accepting nature, quite racist. He argues with her a lot but without any reciprocation, so he’s basically just shouting into thin air while she makes jokes.
I think a lesser movie would take both of these characters and have them slowly learn lessons from each other. He would learn that’s it’s okay to be happy and she would learn that you can’t be so naive in such an uncaring world. He would become a better person who realises that he just needs to be loved and she would learn that if you’re an adult then you have to act like an adult. But that is, of course, not how it goes down. This is not a Kevin James movie and Poppy does not need to grow up.
What needs to be understood here is that the way she acts is not at all easy. Being kind and upbeat while not letting yourself be beaten by the world is really difficult. Being cynical is easy, tackling the world like Sally Hawkins does here is what takes real bravery. She’s not naive at all, she understands perfectly how cruel the world can be and yet perseveres anyway.She goes through life making the hard choices and she gets rewarded for it. She deserves happiness.
So many writers look at the notion of childlike happiness and think that a person must come to grips with the reality of the world. It’s a kind of sad and ultimately warped expression of life and I’m glad there’s a movie out there that goes against that. It’s a movie that says what it takes to be happy is not fulfilling your dreams or fulfilling any material desire, but rather finding it within ourselves. You just have to want it. I think that’s a lesson we can all learn.