Director Mike Leigh wants to test how cynical you really are. With Poppy (Hawkins), the central character in his latest improvised drama, he presents a true dilemma for those who view the glass half empty. Schoolteacher Poppy is defiantly (some might say annoyingly) free-spirited and optimistic. All the time. She refuses to take seriously all the things we’re told to be serious about. She’s funny, undignified, nonjudgmental, sexy and, well, bonkers. She teases grumps, soothes homeless crazies, and fears nothing. Bike stolen? She smiles and laments, “I never even got to say goodbye.” Suffers from back pain? She giggles with surprise at the hurt. Sad to say, Poppy’s an alien among her fellow humans, and her goodwill is as heroic as anything Superman has ever done. Shockingly, none of it hides a deep-seated trauma.
Known for his rigorous explorations of despair and kitchen-sink realism, Leigh’s deceptively sunny Happy-Go-Lucky takes its relentlessly upbeat protagonist seriously, asking whether a person can navigate the mean world with an open and generous heart. In this age of irony and suspicion, it’s a valid dramatic question. And like most of Leigh’s films, there isn’t much of a plot to hang his ideas on. Instead, he presents another meaty character study, surrounding Poppy with real-world foils that challenge her compassion and frivolity. From her insecure pregnant sister to an intense dancing instructor to an angry, xenophobic driving instructor, she fearlessly maintains her kindness no matter the indignity. Poppy’s the tool Leigh uses to unmask the rage and cynicism that dwell in us.
If Happy falters, it’s that its loose narrative doesn’t make much room for middle ground. Poppy is the polar opposite to almost everyone in the film, and while some of her friends appreciate her relaxed grace, they remain uninfected by her transcendent humanism. If Leigh were a little more generous, he might have suggested that, for the cynics among us, there’s still hope for growth.