Nothing in Mike Leigh's movies is ever easy. The British director has an unfailing faith in the goodness of humanity, but to illustrate his particular confidence he forces his characters into gut-wrenchingly difficult psychological and physical circumstances. There's an undercurrent of what might be taken for sadism, even, in some of the scenarios in which he places his characters—the rootless, vacant destitution that hangs like a dark cloud over Naked, the vortex of generational and racial crosscurrents in Secrets & Lies, the priggish, arbitrary legal vindictiveness in Vera Drake—as if the most extreme emotional conditions are required for people to reveal just what they're really made of.
So when a new Leigh film appears called Happy-Go-Lucky, you'd assume that it's an ironic title. It's not, exactly—the phrase provides a perfect description of the movie's protagonist, Poppy, an effervescent 30-year-old London schoolteacher played with exquisite and delicate intensity by Sally Hawkins—but it does downplay the serious way that Leigh uses her story to examine just what happiness is, and how it works.
Poppy has a full life, starting with a class of energetic and responsive students and extending to an intimate circle of friends with whom she drinks at the local pub, dances at the local disco, and tries out flamenco lessons. It's a full life, but not ideal. The flat Poppy shares with her best friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), is charmingly shabby, with the emphasis on shabby; both Poppy and Zoe could use a date; and Poppy's relationship with her younger, pregnant sister is strained.
What Poppy also has, in abundance, is good cheer. For the first third of the movie, her buoyant spirit, characterized by non-stop chatter and teenage giggling, seems like it could be the result of a brain injury or a pathological condition. When her bicycle is stolen, she shrugs her shoulders and walks home. She titters—for a while, anyway—in the face of the increasingly bilious and paranoid misanthropy displayed by her driving instructor (Eddie Marsan). When her childlike exuberance is met with cold stares, she moves on.
As the episodic plot unfolds, however, it becomes clear that Poppy's sunny outlook is as much a matter of choice as it is disposition. You can love the people around you for exactly who and what they are, she seems to argue, or you can poison your relationships and yourself with expectations and judgment. You can also accept the good things in your own life while still hoping for more.
To demonstrate, Leigh lobs a few unhappy dramatic twists into the last couple of acts—Poppy's late-night encounter with a mentally ill homeless man, a violent student who takes the frustrations of his home life out on his classmates, and an excruciating family weekend—in which we see Poppy choose love and happiness over bitterness and resentment. These scenes, and an explosive final encounter with the driving instructor, are vintage Leigh material. Everyday life is suddenly pulled out of its placid moorings, and Hawkins works these moments with subtle clarity, allowing genuine disappointment to settle on her face before it's melted by just as genuine a smile.
These scenes also shatter the film's blithe tone. Happy-Go-Lucky is happy, forcefully so, but it's not carefree. It's not an argument that everything's better than it seems or that it's going to turn out all right in the end. It is, in fact, a case against those kinds of cheap pronouncements. The kind of happiness Leigh prescribes is hard to find, and it never ties up as neatly as a Hollywood ending.