The main character in writer-director Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is named Poppy (Sally Hawkins). Without context, and if you combined that name with the title, one might believe that they’re about to see a children’s story full of puppy-kissing and high jumps over rainbows, or that a secret exclamation mark might have been attached to Poppy’s name (i.e.: Poppy!).
Fear not: Happy-Go-Lucky bears the sacred R rating and contains multiple scenes involving alcohol, sex and off-the-deep-end religiosity, but its unique spirit, mirroring the attitude of its protagonist, might make it more joyful and celebratory than any kids film.
Unlike children’s cinema, the story lacks half of a plot. In fact, some might regard that as a flaw: there’s very little of Poppy versus herself in this film. Most of the conflicts that come her way aren’t quite her fault. She might not even be the film’s main character; that honor might go to Planet Earth, whose many occupants often find the problem of Poppy’s jokey, gallivanting nature wracked with ambiguities: should we find her cheery and helpful or glaringly unsympathetic?
If there is a central story, it’s in Poppy’s encounters with her fundamentally fundamentalist-stalker-driving-instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). At the age of 30, Poppy still lacks a driver’s license. Once her bicycle is stolen (her telling response is, “I didn’t even get to say good-bye”), Poppy begins paying him for lessons, but this becomes problematic once it turns out that Poppy’s gleefully dangerous driving skills don’t collide well with Scott’s irascible nature. Even worse, during the tense moments where Scott explodes (often ordering her to pull over and leave the car), we begin to see Scott’s prejudices and unsound notions appear. Earlier on, he tells Sally to lock the doors when two black men bike by, and later he attempts to inculcate superstitions about the coming antichrist into her mindset.
Though it might take up the most screen time, even this story feels off to the side; much of the film is spent in speciously tangential scenes where Poppy interacts with the world, such as sympathetically speaking to a random homeless man or teaching at her local elementary school. With the script’s meandering design, the performances are especially crucial, and this is the film’s greatest boon. Leigh has a unique pre-production process, spending months developing the characters with his actors individually, and then having the actors meet each other in the order that they would meet in the film-and after that, being subjected to lengthy improvisational periods where they must flesh out their characters’ personalities. Such an elaborate undergoing shows here: Hawkins is entirely believable as Poppy, and despite being occasionally grating, there are many moments where we want to join her exuberance. Yet she is matched by Marsan, whose hawkish dogma offsets the mood of every scene where he and Hawkins interact.
As its method reflects its star, Happy-Go-Lucky inevitably runs into the same flaws as Poppy: several scenes mainly consist of she and her girlfriends enjoying life, and that can be amusing, but only for so long-Leigh tests that “so long” more than once. Yet these annoyances don’t leave their mark when we think about the story a few days later. Instead of recalling how we were bored once or twice, we take the film’s question seriously: how does a miserable and unkind world handle someone unwilling to treat it miserably and unkindly?