The characters in Mike Leigh's films are rarely happy or lucky. The British director, who earned directing and screenplay Oscar nominations for his last film, Vera Drake, rehearses with his actors for months to develop their characters and usually explores the seamy underbelly of our emotions, the painful subjects we all face but shy away from. Films like Vera Drake, Life Is Sweet and Naked (which turned David Thewlis into a star) are brutal and uncompromising, challenging and, ultimately, painfully easy to relate to.
But Leigh goes in the opposite direction with Happy-Go-Lucky, the story of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a 30-year-old, single elementary-school teacher who is effusively happy and determined to spread her cheer. She's fun and ditzy, flighty but responsible, and dresses in a slightly sexy, utterly over-the-top fashion. In fact, Poppy is such an effervescent, bright, sunshiny personality, so positively upbeat, that sometimes you want to punch her in the mouth.
We first meet Poppy just before her bicycle is stolen, as she's trying unsuccessfully to brighten the day of a dour bookstore clerk. This leads her to driving lessons and an encounter with Scott (Eddie Marsan), her instructor, an angry, repressed man who's made himself into the best driving instructor he can be, in spite of his poor people skills.
His car is his domain, and he's the master of it, but his small fiefdom is colored with bitterness and racism. He's the oil to Poppy's water.
Scott initially seems funny, little more than an unpleasant collection of defense mechanisms. But Marsan makes him much more than just a foil for Poppy. As their lessons continue, as Scott gets increasingly frustrated with Poppy's flightiness and exuberance, we see what a wounded man-child he really is, how much pain is lurking beneath all that tortured fury and how much he prevents himself from trying to be happy. Poppy likes the fact that her ways irritate him, so his frustration encourages her to needle him more, to infuriate him with her adorableness and inattention to the road.
Here's what makes Mike Leigh's films so good: We expect, since we're watching a movie, that we'll eventually see the other side of these characters. We'll find out what these polar opposites are hiding. We might find out what lies beneath Poppy's sturdy facade of happiness, and maybe we'll discover that Scott is sweet and chewy on the inside.
But that isn't how people work. Poppy can be a responsible adult, but it's just another facet of who she is ' part of her struggle to make the world a better place. After weeks of chipping away at the emotional dam that holds back Scott's anger and repression, when Poppy finally does make a crack in it, all that rage floods out with nowhere to go. This doesn't make Scott a better person ' if anything, it belittles him even more.
That's the lesson Poppy needs to be taught. This is her movie, and Scott is merely a bit player who makes a weekly appearance in her life. Poppy has to face up to the fact that her intense positive outlook can have unintended consequences for others, and this is a bitter pill to swallow.
Still, even if we don't always like her, we pull for her. And even if sometimes we're as annoyed with her as Scott is, we hope that she's able to choke down that pill, because the world is a better place with her in it.