Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a creature rarely encountered in movies and even less often in real life: someone genuinely happy. She’s not bothered by others’ life goals; at 30, she doesn’t have a baby or a boyfriend, own a house, or know how to drive, and none of these concerns are cause for existential angst. Relentlessly chipper, upbeat, and outgoing, she’s best friends with her roommate (a true rarity!) and has already found the career possibly most suited for her: a gifted, compassionate primary school teacher. Her one vanity seems to be that she’s proud of her legs.
In conversation, Poppy always finds a way to agree with almost anything anyone says. We first meet her chattering away at a sullen bookstore clerk. Having seen Hawkins interviewed around the time of her Oscar nomination, it’s all the more apparent she’s affecting a Catherine Tate impression for the movie. Like Tate, Poppy just barely skirts the edge of being annoying to the audience as well, which considering the reactions Poppy provokes from certain other characters later in the film, probably says more about me than it does her.
Poppy’s other major strategy in life is to find a new opportunity in every setback. A back injury sends her giggling all the way onto an exciting adventure to a chiropractor. Having her bicycle stolen provides another opening for a new experience: driving lessons.
Unfortunately for them both, her new tutor is the unstable, ferociously angry Scott (Eddie Marsan). Just a few of Scott’s many neuroses include racism, homophobia, religious fervor, and conspiracy theories. His most paranoid rant (regarding the Washington Monument supposedly being 666 feet tall – apparently a rumor stemming from the misreported height of its foundation) echoes those of the similarly damaged Johnny (David Thewlis) from Mike Leigh’s excellent Naked (1993). Is Marsan the most versatile actor ever? He’s played everything from a sweet-natured man almost paralyzed by shyness in Leigh’s Vera Drake, to a tough preacher in 21 Grams, to a ruthless criminal who keeps losing extremities in Hancock. Yes, Hancock.
Most narratives are usually structured around conflict and a protagonist’s problem. How do you tell a story about someone that has no problems? Happy-Go-Lucky defied my expectations that the story would go one of three ways:
- Poppy’s happy-go-lucky attitude is a defense mechanism masking an inner sadness. Events conspire that force her to confront and defeat her inner demons. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture a young Julia Roberts.
- Poppy confronts a huge tragedy that nearly breaks her spirit. She overcomes the obstacle. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
- Poppy meets someone deeply sad and unhappy, her polar opposite. She fixes this broken person with the power of her indomitable spirit. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Robin Williams helping Jeff Bridges heal in Fisher King (although it may seem like I’m mocking it here, Terry Gilliam and Richard LaGravenese’s Fisher King is actually one of my favorite movies).
While Poppy’s happiness is totally genuine, she is not deranged. She does not deny that problems and sadness exist in the world and in other people’s lives. Nor does she believe that anyone else can simply shrug off their setbacks, depression, or inner demons. The above scenario to which Happy-Go-Lucky comes closest is the third. Scott and one of Poppy’s sisters are as sad and messed up as she is happy. She tries to help, but recognizes she is unable to fix them. The truly sad realization for the audience at the end is that we see that Poppy knows she must keep her distance from her sister and stop trying to befriend Scott. Her mere presence in their lives drives them crazy.