I just attended my first Key Sunday Cinema Club (KSCC) screening this past weekend where my local chapter viewed Mike Leigh’s latest, Happy-Go-Lucky. The film largely forgoes the plot-driven film making approach in favor of several in-depth character studies. Happy-Go-Lucky finds writer/director Leigh displaying a lighter touch than he has before, but doesn’t stray too far from a foundation of realism, or at least real humanity (and wreckage).
The film primarily focuses on Poppy, an eternal optimist and an unforgettable character. Poppy is portrayed quite remarkably by Sally Hawkins. Hers is amongst several performances in the film that will send you straight home to an IMDB search. Poppy is one of at least four characters who are teachers/instructors of some sort with varying approaches and levels of effectiveness. I try to avoid learning about new films prior to writing wherever possible, though the discussion at the KSCC assured me that Mike Leigh was interested in exploring the role of teachers in our society in this film.
I was fixated on another aspect of the film. From the beginning I found myself interested in gaining a deeper understanding of where her optimistic outlook stemmed from. Perhaps this is a sad self-revelation on multiple levels, but so be it. I cannot say that this film has fixed my alternately retreating and curmudgeonly ways, however it does further my own thinking that having a positive worldview doesn’t necessarily mean you are either, a: not paying attention or, b: a moron. (Though I still theorize that these may be to the most common sources of optimism next to answer c: both a and b.)
Poppy displays her depth through her humanity. A scene midway through the film in which Poppy stumbles upon and spends some time listening and connecting with a homeless man suffering from significant mental illness was the most polarizing in the post-film conversation. I thought the scene was moving and an effective way to shine a light on a defining aspect of her personality. While I can appreciate that this film leans closer to realism than fantastical fiction, it’s still a movie and I don’t mind a scene like this with a slightly greater departure from reality. It serves its function. Without her humanity, Poppy would grow tiresome posthaste. Many of the viewers did find the character ultimately extremely irritating during our discussion.
I found her character exemplifies another long-held belief of mine; that existentialism doesn’t always have to be of the “nothing matters so I might as well kill you and/or myself” variety, but can be joyous in its absurdist hilarities; a way of dealing with a world of difficult compromises and people. Poppy refuses to succumb to darkness or cynicism, despite the urgings of and in the face of other characters who have set up permanent residence in their own Shitopia. You could confuse her jokes in these moments as passive-aggressive, but I believe she is simply entertaining herself rather than getting bogged down. This is fairly high praise from me, still I think I would go the long way around to avoid her if I worked with Poppy, and could eventually be forced into the former brand of existentialism on my bad days.