Vera Drake (Mike Leigh's last, highly acclaimed film, 2004) was about a doddering, naive granny who bustled around, eternally smiling, boiling water for tea while performing crude abortions in post-war England. The war had left a destructive wake and culture was in the shitter, but Vera bumbled from door to door, doing her small bit to help others, seemingly oblivious to the misery around her and her sometime role in causing it.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a twenty-first century take on the same character, with all the drab melancholia and blubbering replaced by bright costumes, improvisational comedy, and giddy laughter. Sally Hawkins is Poppy, a vivacious primary school teacher who wears vibrant blouses and high heeled boots. She maintains close relationships with coworkers, siblings, and old friends (such as roommate Zoe, played by promising newcomer Alexis Zegerman), and amiably chats up anyone who happens to make eye contact with her--something not always welcomed by the strangers she passes. The intrusive loquaciousness is grating at first, and one can easily identify with the stolid book store clerk who ignores her offhand jokes and small compliments until she asks if he's having a bad day and he blusteringly denies it. Why behave so miserably and coldly without any reason?
When her bike is stolen early on, she doesn't mope or swear or fling her belongings violently against the sidewalk. She's peeved, yes, but she also smiles with doggonnit consolation, remarking, "I didn't even get to say goodbye." It's an acceptance of misfortune that's not self-blinding or obnoxious. She doesn't paint it up in wallpaper and pretend that it's some mysterious, positive turn of events; God isn't slamming a door and opening a window, in other words. Instead, it's just something that happens and she moves on cheerfully, refusing to let it bring her down. Why add insult to injury?
Happy-Go-Lucky is a two-hour snapshot of various people dealing with daily miseries, an exploration of how various people navigate quotidian ups and downs. Variations on the Theme of Happiness, it could be called. With her school principal Heather (Sylvestra Le Touzel) she attends a fitness workshop on flamenco dancing where the vibrant, Castilian instructor explains gypsy opposition to oppression through assertive movements, bold statements, and personal space. An overweight dancer in the background stamps, claps, and smiles; she seems positively empowered. Throughout the film, Poppy utilizes the tools at her disposal to make the best of shaky situations. She drinks but has no drinking problem. She longs for sexual companionship but doesn't mourn its absence. When she catches one of her students bullying another, she doesn't jump to punish the offender but instead takes steps to solve the underlying problems, seeing violence within its cycle instead of within a vacuum, recruiting a pleasant social worker to investigate.
Maybe it's all a little simple sometimes--sometimes kids, and people, are just bullies and jerks for extremely complicated reasons or no reason at all, and no amount of investigation into their background could perhaps change that--as in the case of Scott, the foul-teethed, earringed driving instructor that Poppy hires when her bike is stolen, figuring there's no better time to finally get a license. He's a complicated mess--racist, committed, principled, uptight, and paranoid--and when Poppy tries to pry out details of his childhood in order to better understand him--"Were you bullied, Scott?"--it all seems incredibly naive. The man spouts out declarations about demon mythology, mixes spittle with racist invective while fuming about multiculturalism, and cites the dimensions of the Washington Monument as proof of a global conspiracy. No revelations about abusive dads or schoolyard bullies could possibly defuse the thirty years of septic contaminants that have fueled his life and worldview.
But here's the point: Poppy is no expert of human behavior; she's only a champion of her own. When the situation with Scott reaches a violent breaking point, she moves swiftly and assertively to protect herself. Unlike Vera Drake, she isn't a blind lamb whistling her way to the slaughterhouse. With crisis averted she concerns herself less with revenge and punishment (calling the police certainly wouldn't solve anything, she explains) and more with increasing the peace. Merely by retaining her calm demeanor and happy outlook she has won.
Other characters and scenes flesh out other aspects of the happiness problem. A mammoth, tranquil chiropractor soothes away physical discomfort. A younger sister admittedly takes the easy path--suburbs, garden, house, husband, baby, retirement package--while jealously fearing that her wayward older sis might actually be happier. But much of the film is essentially aimless and irrelevant. Leigh's films don't utilize screenplays; his (always fantastic, often Oscar-nominated) actors improvise several versions of intended scenes and he splices together the best bits. So while the banter is always clever, spontaneous, and realistic, it isn't always focused or philosophically meaningful.
Happy-Go-Lucky is much lighter fare than Mike Leigh usually serves up, which is perhaps why it's more successful than the last few films. It offers a palatable and positive, light-handed message, that happiness can be a powerful agent, explosive, self-fueling, contagious, and of limitless supply, that it needn't be the weak, fragile substance we're so often willing to make it seem.
d/w: Mike Leigh
(Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Eddie Marsan)