April 2, 2009


For one to still manage to cheerily chant “Ding-dong, dilly-dilly, da-da, hu-hu” as a chiropractor rearranges your bones is positively ever so slightly happier than the rest of us sordid creatures going about our seemingly mundane lives. Or you’re just a silly grown-up. But for this 30-year-old elementary school teacher, her days are as easy as flapping her arms with a bunch of bird masks donning children, raucously squawking like birds, and pretending to fly. And this lady “trampolines”.

Happy-Go-Lucky” is a curious and surprisingly engaging ride with a perpetually happy lady who consciously takes on her days with a bowl of cherries. Seriously, the lady wears little yellow bird earrings in some scenes. At first, you might doubt Poppy’s integrity and take her for a naïve nutcase who giggles incessantly through her jolly whims and over her own remarks. Unlike most of who she encounters, she finds her jokes and most things in life funny and doesn’t hesitate to show her gaiety in any situation.

The opening scene immediately paints Poppy’s character, superbly played by Sally Hawkins. You see her easygoing face ride her bike through town, browse through a book store, and attempt a repartee with a morose man behind the register whose facial expression clearly says that he can’t be bothered unless you’re purchasing something. After repeatedly failing to stir any type of response from him at all, she finally heads for the exit door chuckling and muttering still to the man what he clearly doesn’t care for, to be happy. Yet, she shows neither the slightest sign of humiliation nor irritation of the man’s blatant rudeness. Next, she finds her bicycle stolen. But when open-jawed with surprise, she merely musters a slight reaction of grief over not having had a chance to say goodbye to her beloved two-cycle. And as you follow her around, you want to shake, smack, or strangle her relentlessly blithe and bubbly persona for her light, almost feeble, approach on things, unless you have had a drink or two with her and her more normal, flat-mate, Zoe, coolly played by Alexis Zegerman.

Then, something bizarre happens. In an indeterminate turn of events and as if the earliest scenes have all been a pretense to mislead you entirely, Poppy suddenly grows on you. You’re baited, hooked, and reeled in, though oddly. The more time you spend with this chirpy chic, the more disconcertingly endearing she becomes as you get to know her. Actually, you can blame this uneasy change of heart on the bicycle thief, whoever he was. Better yet, blame it on the director’s cunning for laying the plot right were he did.

Now that Poppy’s without her bicycle, she decides to take driving lessons. This is where the conflict starts and where the story really begins. Without this particular incident, the film would be nothing more than just a bland sequence of the tedium of life even for the most optimistic person, which certainly wouldn’t appeal very much to us, voyeurs, though Poppy’s outfits and shoes are certainly cool enough to feast on.

Scott, the relentlessly glum and grumpy driving instructor, is a walking, breathing epitome of anger and intolerance trapped in a middle-aged man’s body dressed in an 80’s garb and all repressed in a continuously ticking time bomb of massive hatred that could blow any moment at the slightest provocation. And it does one sunny day, when Scott gets aroused with rage over Poppy’s new beau. Prior this finale, he takes the ever so jovial teacher through her driving sessions a few Saturdays, during which Poppy definitely gets more than just driving lessons, but also an earful or two of Scott’s long list of grievances and lifelong neuroses about people, the world, Poppy’s boots, and ultimately, her character as he deems it.

Though Poppy’s unswerving cheerfulness could be quite irksome and seem unbearably shallow and surreal to a more cynical, critical, expectant, and impatient audience, serious moments become more discernable, poignant, and revealing against the kind of inexhaustible optimism like Poppy’s. Apparently, the more she smiles her way through life, the bleaker the opposing characters around her seem to be. It’s the classic light and dark juxtaposition. And yet, you see her deeper aspects. Her depth, resilience, and sincere compassion for people lying just underneath her smiley skin only get clearer.

Simultaneously subtle and sublime, this is one of the best films I’ve seen thus far. It is witty, well paced, down-to-earth, authentic, and an enormously effective experiment on the highest forms of human emotions—love, compassion, anger, and hatred—that move us and affect the way we interact with each other, and on whether or not we learn from our experiences, good or bad. As Zoe simply put, “Well, you make your own luck in life, don’t you?” Surely, it’s the choices we make that make us who we are. But Mike Leigh isn’t preachy about life matters, although one of the main characters in the film most certainly is. Instead, Leigh shows us by presenting these personalities, their situations, and surrounding elements in a light and natural way, though the effect is ironically forceful, and leaves us to our own conclusions. He offers us twisted ironies. But then, we are left contemplating if our perspectives are the ones twisted. Don’t get fooled by Poppy’s and the others’ seemingly one-dimensional, stereotypical characters, because there’s more angles to them than what Leigh would have you perceive initially.

Though this film might not stop you from cursing and spitting at the most obnoxious person next to you, it might make you want to take a breather before you lash out like Scott under provocation. Eddie Marsan’s powerful portrayal of the immensely disturbed and demented man Scott, reminds us about the ugly wretchedness that anger and intolerance can turn a person into. The added bonus of watching this film is that it can make for a very inexpensive therapy, if you’re willing to face the threatening truth about life, which is sometimes thorn-ridden, unfortunately. But Poppy chooses to see and smell the roses, without ignoring her wounds. Eventually, she encounters love without desperately seeking it. And that is something beautiful and inspiring. If we could only all get to a mindset like Poppy’s and drift through life with her optimism and not “miss the boat completely...”

If you’re looking for a formulated Hollywood box-office movie full of bang served in a huge bubble of empty laughter, loud action, exaggerated drama, and excessive sex that pervades today’s movies and TV shows, this is definitely the wrong flick for your DVD collection. Otherwise, your movie collection just wouldn’t be right without this smart film. And for additional enlightenment by the director, Mike Leigh, and the main casts, Sally Hawkins (Poppy), Alexis Zegerman (Zoe), and Eddie Marsan (Scott), feast on Happy-Go-Lucky’s Bonus Features.

Hilarity highlights:
The Flamenco Teacher’s outburst: “Your boyfriend…betrays you with a 22 yr. old bitch. You want to kill him. You want to cut off his balls. He’s such a bastard. I hate him!”
Scott’s “En-ra-ha” chant
Scott’s first outburst: “Poppy! Let’s go! We’re on a bend! Now, let’s go!”
Scott’s 2nd outburst: “En-ra-ha!!!”

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