Because it's an enjoyable way to make a living — and because freelance film criticism can't quite pay the bills — I teach high school. So while I was watching Mike Leigh's new film, Happy-Go-Lucky, about 30-year-old primary-school teacher Pauline "Poppy" Cross (Sally Hawkins) and her life's little ups and downs, I kept thinking about a girl in one of my classes. Although I like her a great deal, I'll bet she's a huge nuisance to insecure, bitter, draconian instructors. For one thing, she likes to talk; once she talked 35 times during a 65-minute class period. Seventy percent of the time, she offered relevant commentary; the other 30 percent, she said more or less whatever was on her mind: a joke, a personal anecdote, a story that stressed her irrational fear of "John McCain's short arms." But she always brings great intelligence, wit, curiosity, and energy to my classroom, and I try never to say or do anything to dampen her joyful spirits. She'll need them to face the "real world" soon enough.
Well, what if my student could resist adult despair and maintain her high hopes? What might her life be like? What might life in general be like? Through his look at Poppy and her friends, Mike Leigh's film provides some answers. In doing so, he has made the year's best film.
Happy-Go-Lucky is organized as a series of informal assessments that test Poppy's cheery, fully engaged approach to life. The possibility of a potentially explosive clash of worldviews is most explicit in the scenes between Poppy and Scott (a superb Eddie Marsan), her terse, alienated driving instructor. Poppy and Scott's encounters are funny and fraught with peril because the contrasts in their characters are almost too great: Scott is an unsmiling authoritarian with a head full of apocalyptic incunabula, while Poppy's absurdist viewpoint is expressed through constant wordplay and unconscious flirtation. But the film isn't all conflict and clash. Her flat-mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman, perfect) deals with Poppy best by indulging her eccentricities and providing some emotional grounding.
Leigh's approach to filmmaking is as radical as his film's treatment of human happiness. Happy-Go-Lucky's numerous pleasures come from a nuanced, character-driven realist aesthetic that ignores goal-oriented plots and story arcs. Partially due to his intensely collaborative working methods, most of his films ultimately focus on characters trying to co-exist. As Ray Carney and Leonard Quart say in their book Embracing the World, "Leigh's figures are placed in situations in which their ways of feeling and thinking are compared. ... You see, feel, and understand life in one way; I see, feel, and understand it in another."
Thus, several scenes work on multiple emotional levels. The scene between Poppy, social worker Tim (Samuel Roukin), and a sullen little bully is a marvel of text and subtext. It's tender because of the respectful and cautious way the adults draw information from the kid, but it's also incongruently romantic because of the way Poppy and Tim look at each other over the kid's bowed head. There are other precious moments in Happy-Go-Lucky, too; the sad tilt of Poppy's head as she sighs "Scott" near the end of the film; the closing of a yellow door as Poppy and Tim kiss; the scene on the lake as Poppy and Zoe sit in a rowboat and wonder when they will reach adulthood, punctuated nicely by Zoe's deadpan, "Are we there yet?" As the camera cranes up and back, the broad and generous scope of this little film is discreetly revealed. The result is breathtaking.
Opening Friday, November 21st