I admit it: At first, I found the protagonist of Happy-Go-Lucky, the very chirpy, quick-to-wave-at-strangers Poppy, quite annoying. When she barreled into a London bookstore and semi-berated -- as cheerful as you please -- the owner for being variously taciturn, gloomy and missing out on life, I was on his side, and hoped that soon the burbling Poppy would meet a mood-altering come-uppance. After all, this is the latest film from Mike Leigh, plenty of whose leading characters have gotten crushed beneath mountains of miserable circumstance.
Sure enough, when Poppy left the store, she discovered that her bike had been stolen. But she simply shrugged happily, cooing: "I didn't get a chance to say goodbye."
Then a funny thing happened on the way to my sulky viewing experience: Thirty minutes in, I realized I liked Poppy, and that I had -- this really is the perfect term -- misunderestimated her.
In turns out, Poppy (née Pauline) is the sort of person we rarely see profiled in films: an ordinary person who is perfectly happy. (Search only on "ordinary women," and the results are even slimmer.) Arthouse denizens are accustomed to the kitchen-sink dramas of Joe or Jane Six-Pack, but they're usually set in the throes of a domestic crisis, or as a stand-in for larger, gloomier issues, such as unemployment, the changing times or, in the case of earlier Leigh films, Thatcher's Britain.
For 30-year-old Poppy, life is wonderful: She has a job she likes and is good at, teaching elementary school; shares a homey, jumbled flat with her best friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman); and finds the depersonalized vastness of London -- with its millions of other ordinary citizens -- an ever-changing playground. (An overcrowded subway simply amuses her.)
The loosely sketched plot -- the film unfolds over a few weeks -- builds as Poppy enters into a series of weekly driving lesson with the extremely uptight Scott (Eddie Marsan). He is flummoxed by Poppy's blitheness, as she is by his lack of good humor.
Throughout these increasingly fraught lessons, Leigh lets the tension build. My money was on the easily distracted Poppy intersecting badly with some of London's notably bad traffic, but the big bang-up, when it happened, came from other quarters.
But Poppy is no caricature; she is not vapid, naive or flighty. Beneath her seemingly frivolous surface -- accentuated with a crazy-quilt wardrobe of bight colors and textures -- lie common sense, wisdom, kindness and, when warranted, seriousness. Poppy's strength is her optimism, and it's what infuses all the banal and even shadowy corners of her life with, if not light, than at least hope.
Her day-to-day journey has darker spots -- child abuse, mental illness, homelessness, dysfunctional families -- and the empathetic Poppy is surprisingly realistic about what can be mended. Leigh suggests that her greatest sadness is acknowledging that every life can not be as happy (or lucky) as hers; worst of all, to Poppy, are those lives crippled by self-imposed negativity.
All of Poppy's surface charms and hidden depths rest on the bony shoulders of gangly, bright-eyed actress Sally Hawkins, who imbues Poppy with a cozy quirkiness. Delivering Poppy's stream of cheery babble is effortless, but some of Hawkin's best scenes are when Poppy goes quiet.
Seemingly throwaway scenes help to fill out Poppy. For instance, her go at a flamenco class reinforces both her genuine enthusiasm for new experiences (she's as much student as teacher), but also her giddy freeness, which finds a perfect physical outlet at her weekly trampoline sessions, and less so in the rigid, stylized dance form.
A few of life's wholly normal pains aside, Leigh's unironic film is a sunny endeavor and full of light humor -- from Poppy's dreadful puns and nonsense phrases, to Zoe's wry sarcastic observations and Scott's compulsive and bizarre driver-training methods.
I can't stress enough what a refreshing change it is to see any young woman represented normally and without compromise on the big screen. (Thankfully absent from this film is any of that nonsense from test-marketed Chick Flick City, where beautiful, cutely neurotic women squeal, buy shoes and pine over men.)
Admittedly, this season is already full of gloom: Winter's coming, politics have stretched everyone's last nerve, the economy is ailing. Two hours with the bracingly optimistic Poppy may be just the tonic.
Starts Fri., Nov. 7.