The irresistibly named Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a wide-eyed--accentuate the positive--cheerleader of a school teacher with an attitude that says “I want to be your friend.” She is endlessly Happy Go Lucky and even several encounters with those who don’t share her optimistic outlook can’t seem to knock her down. The film doesn’t have a traditional plotline but rather is a series of recurring scenes from her life. After her bike is stolen she decides to take driving lessons from an increasingly frustrated instructor (Eddie Marsan). Their frequent episodes grow more intense each time as the lessons tend to bring out the pent-up anger of the man trying to teach Poppy how to make a left turn. She also takes Flamenco lessons from a loopy Spanish dance instructor (Karina Fernandez) gets romantically involved in an intense relationship with a social worker (Samuel Roukin) spends time with her best pal and roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) who provides a soothing counterpoint to Poppy’s non-stop cheerfulness and tries to deal with problems involving her sisters (Kate O'Flynn and Caroline Martin) and brother-in-law (Oliver Maltman).
Leigh is known for an improvisational style of filmmaking spending months working everything out with his actors in rehearsal and then letting them do the scenes with only an outline of what it will be. In this environment actors have to be top notch and indeed Leigh has elicited a few Oscar-nominated performances in the past including Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies and Imelda Staunton in his last film Vera Drake. Add Sally Hawkins to the top tier of actors in Leigh films. She is in nearly every scene and the film lives or dies on her inherent appeal. We are with this irrepressible life force from the very first moment she hits the screen with her rather garish but colorful outfits and unflappable demeanor. Hawkins is a breath of fresh air a real discovery. Also getting lots of screen time is Eddie Marsan as the driving instructor who goes ballistic. His slow simmering rage is fascinating to watch as the dynamic of the student/teacher relationship goes into unexpected--and uncomfortable--territory. Fernanez provides most of the film’s comic relief as the demanding flamenco instructor and her scenes with Hawkins are the film’s highlight. Leigh is a director known for exploring the lives of British working class. His unique films focus generally on those poor blokes and birds just trying to get by and live a life of dignity despite England’s class system. As one of his film titles suggests Mike Leigh characters have High Hopes. But Happy Go Lucky is perhaps his lightest and certainly most optimistic film yet. By focusing an entire feature on a central character who exudes happiness and goodwill toward her fellow man he turns a light also on the problems and hang-ups of people who bounce their woes off her in this oddly segmented film. Leigh’s improv filmmaking techniques work well here but seem less structured and disciplined than usual. The film is too long for its own good and many scenes wear out their welcome halfway in. Still it’s good to have a craftsman with the kind of singular voice Leigh has still able to make movies his way because in this instance at least that has produced the gift of Sally Hawkins.