“Ooooh, ‘The Road to Reality,'” coos schoolteacher Poppy Cross, fingering a thick tome in a bookstore. “Don't want to be going there.” But that's exactly the path writer-director Mike Leigh has followed for 20 years, and “Happy-Go-Lucky” does the same – though by a different route than Leigh's other movies.
Most of Leigh's protagonists are weighed down by poverty, psychological problems or commitment to misplaced ideals. The ironically named Poppy, who's probably the least cross person in any of his films, is barely weighed down at all. She's irrepressibly cheerful, and even the loss of her bicycle in the first scene elicits only a rueful smile and a “Hmph. Didn't get a chance to say goodbye.”
Many Leigh movies follow downtrodden people who find some hope or learn to struggle on with more focus. This one has an inverse arc: Poppy, who's astonishingly carefree and naïve at 30, gets pulled down for the first time by emotional gravity. But the outcome is the same as in all his pictures: a suggestion that wiser need not mean sadder.
She leads a blithe life when we first meet her, enjoying her young students and hanging out with more grounded flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman in a memorable film debut). Then she takes driving lessons from Scott (the ferocious Eddie Marsan), a knot of repressed anger the good-natured Poppy can't untangle. When she tries, he mistakes her friendship for flirting.
His deep well of misery alerts her to more unhappiness around her: a student whose sad home life leads him to beat other boys, and a proud homeless man whose mutterings she tries vainly to interpret in hopes of helping. Now she questions her own attitude: Has her optimism been foolishness all along?
Leigh is famous for improvising with actors until they feel at home, and Hawkins (a veteran of his “All or Nothing” and “Vera Drake”) is perfect: Her lightheartedness seems sweet to us, but we can see why a steady diet of it would give acquaintances a sugar overdose. Marsan is getting typecast as angry people (see “Hancock,” don't see “Miami Vice”), but we also feel pity for the lifelong troubles Scott must be facing.
Scenes that would be throwaways in most films – girls gabbing on their night out, a walk by the seaside – have been set up to tell us a lot about the people in them, if we'll only pay close attention. Paying attention is what all of Leigh's films are about in the end: Having empathy for the things that make us different from each other yet working harder to find any elements that might connect us, too.