Sally Hawkins ("Vera Drake," "Layer Cake") is positively charming as a mod-throwback English schoolteacher whose Mary Sunshine personality helps her connect with her young students but befuddles many of the adults with whom she tries to interact. Just watching Hawkins' facial expressions and reaction shots is enough to make you smile, so it's easy to see why she won a Golden Globe for her performance. Sometimes that, combined with her delivery, makes you think of Mike Myers' Austin Powers character when people aren't responding the way that he thought they might. It's that much of a snorts-and-giggles involuntary reaction to see her go through her Pollyanna routine.
There's really not much in the way of plot, though. It's an ultra-thin slice-of-life film that begins with a cheery sequence involving Poppy (Hawkins) on her bicycle, carefree as can be and just flat-out enjoying life. Even when she returns from looking inside a store (where her attempts to coax a smile or some human interaction from a surly clerk fall flat) to find her only means of transportation stolen, she still smiles. So should we all, is the underlying moral here. She may not be able to win over people other than her roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), sister Suzy (Kate O'Flynn), or a school psychiatrist (Samuel Roukin) who helps her with a disturbed pupil and likes her enough to ask her out. But it's that gap between the cynics, grumps, dour people and Poppy that creates a space for the audience to appreciate just how endearingly quirky her character is.
This is a comedy of character, which is to say that every scene is geared toward highlighting Poppy's effervescent personality. We watch her dancing at a club with sister and friends, getting absolutely "pissed," and then laughing and talking girl-talk afterwards at the apartment. We watch her testing out a craft project with roommate and fellow elementary schoolteacher Zoe and loving it all just a bit more than her friend. We watch her join another at flamenco lessons, and go from those Mike Myers' sly ridicule-mode looks to really getting into it. We watch her handle a bully with more understanding than a typical teacher and enthrall the school psychiatrist, Tim, as they date. But mostly we watch her sign on to take driving lessons from a man who will prove to be her biggest challenge: an angry man named Scott (played with all the delicious zeal of a Disney villain by Eddie Marsan).
It's those sessions in the car between Scott and Poppy that move the plot forward toward the film's relatively mild climax. The contrast between the unhappy driving instructor and his ebullient pupil and the ways in which she drives him crazy also take us through the widest range of emotions that this film evokes and explores. The two of them couldn't be more opposite in their personalities and attitudes. One is a peppy and perky schoolteacher, and the other a dropout who had a miserable experience in the educational system and now says things like "Schools produce left-brain prisons." At times, Poppy doesn't know quite what to say, and so she resorts to her default: making a joke or trying to coax a smile. What else is there to do?, she wonders aloud. CONCENTRATE! Scott shouts. Stop wearing those bloody boots. They're not proper driving attire, Scott chides. ENRAHAH! he shouts, which is his way of reminding her to look at her left mirror, rear-view mirror, and right mirror before doing anything. And when he says it and explains the method to his madness, you realize that he's like a religious zealot who is trying to convert her every bit as much as she is trying to get to him. It becomes a test of wills, a battle of philosophies that lurks beneath the surface of her jokes and his annoyances and rants.
Director Mike Leigh also wrote the script and received another Oscar nomination for his screenplay, as he did for "Vera Drake." He lingers long enough each scene for it to feel like real-life, but gets out before it starts to drag. Sometimes quick cuts provide odd flashes of Poppy's personality sandwiched in-between longer scenes, while other times he's able to sustain the film's tireless energy and enthusiasm by expertly employing the kind of overlapping dialogue that drove the old screwball comedies. The difference is, this isn't a romantic comedy with a love-hate relationship that spins like a bottle and finally settles on love. It's all about love and hate, anger and laughter, and remembering that life is a gift to be unwrapped every day with the same joy as on Christmas morning. And Sally Hawkins was the perfect messenger to deliver it to us.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" is rated R for language.
Miramax offers a transfer that's decent, with good color saturation and detail for a DVD. It's presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions. There's some but not much grain, and so overall it's a nice video package.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is decent too, though the scenes are few which remind us that the rear speakers are indeed connected. School scenes and club scenes and the sounds of traffic come across, but at other times it's mostly the front mains and center speaker that carry the load. Bass and treble have a nice balance, though, and dialogue never gets lost among the effects or ambient noise. Subtitles are in Spanish.
There aren't an overwhelming amount of extras, but what's here serves as a nice complement to the film. Leigh offers an engaging commentary that clues us in on the writing process, casting, behind-the-scenes filming, and director's decisions. He's a very cerebral writer and director, and he has a lot to say about both creative and directorial strategies. There are also two short bonus features, "Behind the Wheel of Happy-Go-Lucky" and "Happy-in-Character," which focus on the main characters and show behind-the-scenes clips. The latter is just under 27 minutes long and is probably heavier on the talking heads than it is on clips. There's some overlapping with the commentary, but also some nice insights here. Hawkins remarks, for example, that her character "just doesn't shut up, and she thinks she's hilarious as well. As much as she doesn't judge others, she doesn't judge herself." So it's not just actors telling us the obvious about their characters. It's how they see them, inhabit them, and as Hawkins says, under Leigh's direction "everyone is building his character from birth" so they know them inside and out.
The second feature is considerably shorter (just under five minutes) and includes technical aspects, such as how the driving scenes were filmed. There's more of the same talking heads and clips, but augmented with clips that show the actors behind the scenes as well. Just about the time you get going, though, you find yourself wanting more.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" is a character tour-de-force for Sally Hawkins, but also a great vehicle for Eddie Marsan as the driving instructor who turns out to be her nemesis. As we watch her toy with him the way a cat paws at a stuffed animal, and as we watch him counter with another attempt to introduce her to the "real" world, we realize that we're watching two dynamite performances spotlighted within an engaging comedy.