Sally Hawkins, from

Dir. Mike Leigh
(R) ★ ★ ★

Poppy is so upbeat even her name sounds like a celebration — or like an opiate, if you will, and that comparison might be just as apt, depending on your perspective. She’s unflappably chipper, and you, like I, might be waiting for the other shoe to drop: some tragic twist that would reveal that her relentless positivity is a facade, or a symptom of a greater problem. Perhaps that says more about me than it does about her. Perhaps the viewer is his own litmus test; he learns who he is by whether he wants to hug her or have her committed.

Poppy is the subject of writer-director Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, and I love her. As played in an infectious performance by Sally Hawkins, she is a force of nature, joyous. Her outlook isn’t naive; she sees the world with clear eyes and accepts it lovingly. I want to be like her, and spending two hours with her is a pleasure. However, as the end credits rolled, I wondered why I had spent two hours with her. Leigh tells her story without a clear point of view. His film observes her, along with others in her life who represent a broad palette of temperaments, but it does not express an opinion of her. What does her story mean to Leigh? What should it mean to us? He shows, but he does not reveal.

Poppy is a schoolteacher and a good one. Her exuberance helps her relate to her young students, but she is a responsible educator and addresses problems with maturity. In her off hours, she is unleashed. The first scenes show her trying to cozy up to a bewildered bookstore clerk and then partying with friends. When her bicycle is stolen, she observes, unperturbed, “I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye.”

The idea of the film seems to lie with the various personalities of her friends and family how they contrast. She has two younger sisters. One is married and with child; she regards life with strict seriousness and warns Poppy not to be so cavalier. The other is pouty and petulant and lashes out. There is a flamenco instructor who is prone to emotional outbursts. And a student who is angry and violent as the result of problems at home. We notice these things, but what do we do with these things we notice? It’s data in search of a hypothesis.

The film comes most fully alive during the scenes with Poppy’s driving teacher, Scott, played by Eddie Marsan in a marvelous performance that creates a great inner sadness under a thick exterior of cantankerousness. Scott is Poppy’s direct opposite — dark as Poppy is bright, mistrusting as Poppy is open-hearted. She seems impervious to his perpetual bad mood — to a point. They have great confrontation that supplies the climax, though the film’s lack of a cogent theme leaves the scene somewhat adrift amongst all the other scenes.

There is an interlude I don’t understand. It involves a chance encounter with a homeless man (Stanley Townsend). I call it a chance encounter because what else but chance could account for it in the screenplay? I spent much time considering this seemingly orphaned scene. What does it say about Poppy, about the world, or about the man? We see that Poppy is compassionate, but we knew that already. The homeless man rambles and is fearful of his surroundings, but it doesn’t say much about the world because he sees it through the fractured prism of mental disorder. About the man — you’d have to ask him, but I don’t know if his answer would be clearer than mine.

Leigh is famous for his use of improvisation in developing his screenplays. I recommend the film on the strength of the characters he and his actors have collaborated to create. As for the story — you may glean more from it than I.

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