Little Miss Sunshine
By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Mike Leigh, UK, The Weinstein Company
Mike Leigh has followed up one of his dreariest films, 2004’s Oscar-nominated Vera Drake, with one of his breeziest. Happy-Go-Lucky, which stars the ingratiating Sally Hawkins as Poppy, an improbably good-natured primary school teacher, opens with a burst of energy. Poppy bicycles effervescently through the streets of London, not a care in the world, before pausing to do some book shopping (and playfully harass the store’s employee). When she finally leaves, she discovers that her bike has been stolen. “I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye,” she sighs, before moving on, not one to let this small bit of victimization get her down. Chin up, Poppy goes about her business, off to the club with her girlfriends and then, the next morning, to plan an art project for her students. Her reaction is either charming or utterly insane, depending on your point-of-view. And that, in a nutshell, is the point.
After the untimely loss of her bike, Poppy decides to take up driving and engages Scott (Eddie Marsan) to give her lessons. At the start of their first session, she reaches for his hand and ever so mischievously exclaims, “Here we go, gigolo.” Scott, all business, keeps the talk on the “golden triangle.” An easy pubic-hair joke follows, and then a reprimand from Scott about Poppy’s footwear—she’s wearing heels, and he insists that proper driving can only be done in flats. Leigh wastes no time in establishing the toxicity of their teacher-student relationship. Poppy, dressed in neons, florals, and, as Scott calls them, her “inappropriate boots,” delights in teasing her instructor without giving it a second thought; Scott, meanwhile, is all barely sublimated resentment and rage, the kind of person who doesn’t pause to consider the implications of his racial profiling when he tells Poppy to lock her car door as two black men pass.
The unnerving tension between the overly cheery Poppy and the explosively confrontational Scott as the emotional and narrative center of Happy-Go-Lucky. Of course, other things happen to Poppy during its two-hour running-time—an uncomfortable visit with her pregnant sister, some flamenco lessons, a lovely date with a social worker who visits her school to counsel an aggressive student—but the film just keeps pushing towards a climactic reckoning between Poppy and Scott. The inevitability of that reckoning, though, is something of a dramatic problem: since it is immediately apparent that Scott and Poppy will come to no good together, their interactions are less of a slow build than a protracted plot device. The question is not what will happen but when and how, which raises another issue: why does Poppy continue to take these lessons with a man so obviously teetering on the brink of becoming completely unhinged?
As Happy-Go-Lucky wears on, it becomes increasingly apparent that Poppy places herself in danger, emotionally if not physically, each time she steps into the car with Scott. Watching her, I found myself wondering, “Why would this woman do this to herself?" and I kept returning to the assessment that she suffered either from criminal self-neglect or criminal self-delusion. But this is exactly the gamble that Leigh is making. If there is anything brilliant in Happy-Go-Lucky, it is this: Leigh’s film forces us to take a position on Poppy’s behavior—to either judge her for her naiveté or to release ourselves to her optimistic, radiant good nature. She gets in the car with Scott, time and again. She wanders through a desolate lot trying to engage a disturbed homeless man. Why? Because she is oblivious to the dangers these men pose? Empathetic to their situations? Simply a happy person who believes the world is a fundamentally good place, and that the troubled souls within it just need a little warmth and tenderness?
One might posit that Leigh’s film only works by playing on our cynicism, that we can only deem Poppy to be remarkable or delusional because she is not like the rest of us, but Happy-Go-Lucky resists judgment. In an argument with her sister, Poppy insists that she is aware of the complexities, challenges, and uncertainties that life as an adult poses, and that she is, quite simply, happy. The movie leaves it at that, and so, any response we have to Poppy must finally say as much about us as it does about her. Leigh could easily have punished Poppy for her attitude towards life or the choices she makes, just as he could have steadfastly avoided any of the film's turns towards the serious. Instead, he forces us to decide whether our worldviews can accommodate such a person, whether we can accept her happiness or must instead dismiss it, like her sister, as childishness.
It would be misleading, though, to imply that Happy-Go-Lucky dwells on the precariousness of Poppy's well being or strains too hard to make a philosophical point. Instead, it coasts on Hawkins's buoyant energy as her character flits from chiropractor to school to flamenco lesson to drinks with a friend to driving lesson. The film has a loose episodic structure and effortlessly snappy pacing. Despite the movie's pure entertainment value, though, Poppy herself isn't all that likeable; her lame quips and uninfectious attempts at charm have a frequently cloying effect, and it's likely that Poppy will turn off a sizable number of audience members unwilling to commit to two hours of her relentlessly silly, giddy joie de vivre. Thanks undoubtedly to Leigh's distinctively collaborative, improvisational process, Hawkins's Poppy emerges fully formed—a magnificently lived-in, yet overdone, aggravatingly annoying creation. She isn't for everyone, but the actress delivers a marvelous performance. Leigh wisely finds a few quiet moments for Poppy, simple reaction shots as she watches her flamenco instructor with a slight smile or observes, with compassionate concern, as one of her students bullies another on a playground.
These all-too-brief pauses give Hawkins a chance to quietly render her character's empathy, to contemplate and respond in simple, delicate close-ups. These moments make the movie, and they save Poppy from becoming too broad a caricature. Some of the other characters fare less well (Marsan in particular has nowhere to go with Scott, and so he ends up hitting the same note in scene after scene), but Happy-Go-Lucky rises and falls on its central character. And thanks to a remarkable actress and a writer-director who gives her just enough room to pull back, Happy-Go-Lucky is, for all its flaws, quite lovely indeed.