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HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (director/writer: Mike Leigh; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: Jim Clark; music: Gary Yershon; cast: Sally Hawkins (Poppy), Eddie Marsan (Scott), Alexis Zegerman (Zoe), Andrea Riseborough (Dawn), Sinéad Matthews (Alice), Kate O’Flynn (Suzy, Poppy’s younger sister), Sarah Niles (Tash), Sylvestra le Touzel (Heather), Karina Fernandez (Flamenco Teacher), Stanley Townsend (Tramp), Samuel Roukin (Tim, Social Worker), Elliot Cowan (Bookseller), Nonso Anozie (Ezra), Jack MacGeachin (Nick, troubled student), Caroline Martin (Helen, Poppy’s pregnant older sister), Oliver Maltman (Jamie, Poppy’s brother-in-law); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Simon Channing Williams; Miramax; 2008-UK)
“An upbeat seriocomedy about an ever-smiling eternal optimist.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Happy-Go-Lucky is an upbeat seriocomedy about an ever-smiling eternal optimist who blindly refuses to act her age and paddles her way through life with a childishly sunny disposition and tries not to get down about all the wrongs she encounters, though they do leave her with a bruised soul. Mike Leigh (“High Hopes”/”Life Is Sweet”/”Naked”) centers the socially observant film around his schoolteacher heroine’s ordinary escapades during a few short weeks in the spring, in the contemporary multi-racial London, as she relates with friends, family, other faculty members, her students and diverse strangers who suddenly come into her life. The liberal social conscience noted British auteur lets his slice of life dramedy feed off his protagonist’s high energy and takes us to everyday life situations that one wouldn’t think of as entertaining, like a visit to the chiropractor, but surprisingly in the hands of the talented filmmaker it becomes not only entertaining but poignant as it brushes up against some mundane truths about existence that bears telling as to what constitutes happiness and what makes a good teacher and what makes a good person.

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a bubbly 30-year-old single Londoner living in a humble flat for the last ten years with her cynical teacher roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), a good foil for her enthusiastic attitude, and happily working in a primary school with seven-year-olds (having a blast with them as they all make colorful paper bags and put them over their head to dance around in the class). What keeps her off-putting is that she’s so self-absorbed that she acts the same no matter her surroundings and her clownish behavior seems to indicate that she has a need for attention and acceptance, even if her gentle nature and kindly disposition cannot be questioned.

The exuberant Poppy is not put-off by having her bicycle stolen as she comes out of a bookstore after an encounter with a sullen clerk, and instead signs up for driving lessons. Her instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) is an uptight, bigoted, disgruntled, unhappy angry young control-freak, who goes on a crazed rant about the rules need to be followed for everything to be OK in the world and his despotic method of teaching is exactly opposite to Poppy’s nurturing style. We also catch Poppy joyously dancing to pop music with friends at the club scene; going with her more mature colleague Heather (Sylvestra Le Touzel) for flamenco lessons after work with a passionate but angry teacher (Karina Fernandez) who is weird but a good motivator for the stiff Brits in her class; meeting a babbling disoriented homeless man (Stanley Townsend) in the park as she takes a walk on the wild side and is fortunate to come out unscathed when he proves to be harmless and refuses her offer of help; sensitively recognizing that a bully student named Nick is himself the product of an abused home and getting him the proper help; and lastly hitting it off with the competent school social worker (Samuel Roukin) who gets involved with her needy student in a helpful way and dates her because he respects her compassion as a teacher.

Hawkins runs with this comical role, as Leigh’s improvised script gives her its full attention and she carries the character driven film on her shoulders as the genuinely decent woman who tries like the wise man fool “to bring a smile to the world” and seems not only a bit loose in the head but too nice for a world that has so much darkness. By the climax, she also seems a lot wiser than we first might have thought and makes a particularly irritating chatterbox character somewhat endearing (though I wouldn’t want to be around her for any length of time, like the film’s 158 minutes before it was cut upon release).

Leigh gives us some healthy doses of the two sides of life: of those who ‘fit in’ by buying into a piece of the ‘suburban dream’ thinking those material comforts will bring them happiness (like Poppy’s pregnant sour sister Helen) and those who ‘can’t fit in’ but still function (like the unhappy Scott and the happy Poppy). We are not uncovering any big problems here in the modern world, only Leigh seems to be implying that Poppy might lose her essence if she lost her joie de vivre or society made her conform and despite her naivety and psychological problems she’s all the better for doing things her way. Leigh doesn’t get around to telling us how society can corrupt the innocent, because his heroine is such a strong character that she seems to bounce through life as if she were on a trampoline and can’t become unhinged because she refuses to confront reality head on but instead takes on a more fairy-tale existence to keep up her mojo.

Hawkins won the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival.

REVIEWED ON 12/23/2008 GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”