At Michigan Theater


4 out of 5 Stars

Compared to his previous work, British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s (“Vera Drake”) newest film, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” is oddly unsettling. There are no oppressed abortionists, fleeing rapists or characters conflicted by life tragedies. In “Happy-Go-Lucky,” everything is, well, good: The movie is an unexpected gift that creates smiles and encourages an appreciation of life.

The “happy” of “Happy-Go-Lucky” is delivered through sprightly and giggly Poppy (Sally Hawkins, “The Painted Veil”), a 30-year-old teacher living in London who is unbound by the conventions of adulthood (read: husbands and mortgages). Her hippie wardrobe, complete with psychedelic-colored earrings and outrageous necklaces, is the perfect manifestation of her free spirit. She’s carefree and doesn’t let anyone or anything break her smile, even if her treasured bicycle gets stolen or she encounters a threatening vagrant late at night while walk home. She greets all misfortune and danger with a grin. She’s fearless.

Understanding Poppy requires an understanding of the people she’s closest to. For one, she lives with Zoe (newcomer Alexis Zegerman), her roommate and best friend of 10 years. Zegerman’s strong performance matches that of Hawkins, creating the perfect foil to the sugary Poppy. Nevertheless, the roommates’ intimacy is undeniable and often surpasses they typical boundaries of friendship. In one scene, the best friends lie next to each other in bed, sincerely and eagerly questioning life as they know it. As they announce themselves as women ready to be loved (in bed), large-scale questions dig at Poppy’s life: What is the driving force behind Poppy and her smiling face? Why is she so optimistic when others aren’t?

The latter question is called into review with the introduction of Scott (Eddie Marsan, “Hancock”), her cynical, anti-American driving instructor (yes, she’s learning to drive at age 30). He’s best understood as the antithesis of her upbeat demeanor. In one of the only serious, tension-filled scenes, Scott explodes in anger as he begs the question that many viewers will also be pressed to ask: Why is she so goddamn happy?

While the film may not be guided by a linear plot, it’s these intimate relationships that support the film’s overall narrative arc. A touch of understated and ironic British humor helps, too. Leigh, notable for his selection of strong actresses as the impetus behind his movies, perfectly casts Hawkins as the film’s leading lady. His unique pre-production routine of improvisational sessions with his cast clearly helped to flesh out the feel of the film. With many of the improvisations included in the final script, the film plays a lot like real life.

Accepting and understanding Poppy is the key to enjoying the film. Her bubbly personality may be utterly annoying at the film’s onset, but as the movie goes on, Poppy emerges as an enigma in need of solving. Ultimately, her strange appeal is resolved — she’s scary because she lives a carefree and simple life that most never could.

Whether her character is taking Flamenco dance lessons or attending the occasional trampoline session, Hawkins’s performance is a pleasure to watch. Leigh brilliantly crafts a character who complements a cast of equally important and real personalities. The result is a sincerely blissful film with a character who demonstrates it’s easy to submit to despair, but it’s easier to meet cynicism with optimism. And what makes for a better onscreen character — especially today — than a genuinely happy one?

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