Yesterday morning, I heard a homily in which the priest talked about partaking of the Eucharist and how he (we) often do so daintily as he mimicked a timid partaking of the cup. He countered this image by reflecting on the large stained glass window in the sanctuary which depicts Jesus’ baptism. As John baptizes Jesus, rays of light beam down from a dove at the top of the window and flow over Jesus’ head, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. The priest concluded that, while we daintily partake of the Eucharist, God wants to drown us in the Holy Spirit so that we literally reek of it. This is an interesting thought…reeking of the Holy Spirit. What would it look like? What would it smell like? In scripture (Galatians 5:22-23), we find a description of what this might look like…a list of the fruits of the spirit. These include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Very rarely do we find characters in film that reek of the fruits of the Spirit as much as Poppy does in Mike Leigh‘s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky.
For almost two hours, Leigh drops us into the life of Poppy (Sally Hawkins in a joyous performance that was rightfully honored by a Golden Globe for best actress in a musical or comedy), a thirty-something British woman who teaches at a primary school and spends the rest of her time hanging out with friends and family. We follow Poppy as she teaches, converses with co-workers, takes flamenco and driving lessons, and seeks out a potential relationship. Like a lazy weekend, nothing ever really “happens” in Happy-Go-Lucky, and that’s not a bad thing either. We, like Poppy’s best friend and roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), just hang out with her and experience her infectiously happy and positive attitude and outlook on life. We see it from the start of the film: when she sees that her bicycle is stolen, she just laughs and says, “I never even got to say goodbye.” While the idea of a two-hour long smiley face might turn off some more cynical viewers, Leigh does not waste this character and includes events, situations, and other characters which intensifies the effectiveness of Poppy’s happiness and simultaneously tempers it.
First, Poppy’s job (for which she is thankful) is a perfect avenue through which to exercise her happiness. She is a primary school teacher whose creativity enlivens and enthralls her students. Poppy’s positive attitude energizes her for what is no doubt an exhausting job. However, it does not blind her to the ugliness of childhood and the painful realities that might lie underneath. When she goes out for drinks with co-workers, they all complain about the inactivity of their students who are addicted to video games. Poppy speaks out on behalf of parents (perhaps many single parents) who work all week to provide their children and are too exhausted to play with them on the weekend. Later in the film, Poppy recognizes that one of her students is becoming increasingly violent, perhaps due to trouble at home.
Leigh also contrasts Poppy’s happiness with her friends and family, particularly her roommate Zoe and her pregnant sister. Where Poppy is eternally optimistic, Zoe is, perhaps, more cynical, though not necessarily unhappy. She, like Poppy, enjoys single-hood though is of course on the lookout for a relationship. On the other hand, Poppy’s sister has “settled” for a married and pregnant life. Though Leigh is not as damning of the suburbs as many other contemporary filmmakers, he does convey a more confining nature.
But the most vehement opponent to Poppy’s happiness is her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) who is constantly angry, suspicious, and extremely racist. He forever yells at Poppy and warns her of the dangers of not taking life seriously. Against such warnings like, “You have to take driving seriously or you will crash and die laughing,” Poppy responds, “Well if you’re gonna go….” Though Poppy’s happiness seems to buffer her against Scott’s attacks, it is not without limits. She confronts Scott about his anger and, in one of his more violent rages, refuses to let him continue teaching her.
Poppy’s happiness does not ignore the darker realities of life. In one of the film’s weirdest, yet most compelling, scenes, Poppy wanders into an empty, run-down construction site and encounters a bumbling, dirty homeless man. Rather than running in fear or just slinking away, Poppy approaches the man and genuinely tries to listen to what he says. When he cannot complete sentences, Poppy does so for him and agrees with his frustrations. Leigh holds the tension here of whether or not this man will attack Poppy. Again, nothing happens here as the man just walks away, but yet, through their interaction, Poppy (and Leigh) uncover the humanity of a homeless man that we often miss both on the screen and on the street.
I opened this review with a reference to the Christian fruits of the spirit. There is no specific reference to God, religion, theology, or spirituality Happy-Go-Lucky, yet one cannot deny that it is a fountain of spirit. Poppy’s life overflows with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control, with plenty to spare. Rarely do we encounter a character in film with such an abundance of goodness, and rarely have we ever seen a director so capable of avoiding a trite portrayal. As Leigh literally lifts us out of Poppy’s life, we might regret that we can’t stay a bit longer, but we will no doubt be encouraged to go on and get happy.
Happy-Go-Lucky (118 mins.) is rated R for language and is in rather limited release.