British director Mike Leigh has made the first great comedy for our new depression. Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky tells the story of a sunny soul who lets her smile be her umbrella and sometimes her human pest repellent. It has a big-hearted optimism. It pays tribute to characters who hold on to their aplomb even in plummeting circumstances.
Leigh's heroine, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), has put together her life with an existential do-it-yourself kit. When you see her hopping bars with her roommate Zoe (the droll Alexis Zegerman) and her off-kilter younger sister Sally (the glorious Kate O'Flynn), she could be any working woman having a blast. And when you see her and Zoe in their flat making bird masks from paper bags, you don't know what she's up to. It turns out she's a schoolteacher, and a great one, whether she's using bird masks to excite kids about avian migration or pondering why a pleasant-looking boy turns violent.
Rather than resort to a conventional plot (he never does), Leigh structures the film like a giant, joyous "Getting to Know You" number. Early on, audiences may sympathize with a bookshop owner who keeps his distance from Poppy at her daffiest. Yet the way Hawkins plays her, with a brilliant combination of ebullience and mental energy, she's "cute" meaning attractive and "cute" meaning acute - and thus a potential heroine even when she comes off as a ditz.
Everything about this movie is primary in a good way, including the bold, bright colors and the values of imagination and creativity Poppy fosters in her primary school. Her cheerfulness is mostly authentic, at times also willed. She doesn't believe that if you smile the world smiles with you. But she knows that a smile can be renewing when the world or one of its sorrier creatures gets you down.
"Whatever gets you through the day" - now reduced to "whatever" - remains the catchphrase people use to express a placid acceptance of life. Leigh, and Poppy, would never employ that as a refrain or accept it as a motto. The point of her life is to embrace the day, not just get through it. She thinks everything deserves a human touch. Many a bohemian would try to cheer up a drooping plant or flower. Only Poppy can say, wistfully, of a stolen bicycle, "We didn't even get a chance to say goodbye."
With its luscious wide-screen images of unfamiliar, vibrant parts of London, the movie is about a woman whose open attitude toward the world enlarges our own vision of it. By the time she takes her first driving lesson (to compensate for that stolen bike), we know her so well that we're amused when her fierce and weird instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), can't believe that she's a teacher. Their relationship becomes the movie's crux. Scott uses his brains to construct a closed vision of life with himself as wounded hero and aggrieved party. Poppy needles him yet also respects his teacherly pride, not realizing how much anger, confusion and ugliness rest inside this bottled-up man.
The movie never turns sour. It gets richer and more heartening as it goes along. It contains uproarious set pieces, such as flamenco lessons with a teacher (Karina Fernandez) who throws her romantic ravages into her work. Moviegoers new to Leigh will be astonished at how many superficially clashing tones and themes mesh inside his movies. When Poppy and Sally visit their suburban sister, the sequence is like a vivid one-act play about disparity within families and the defensiveness a conventional sibling feels with the nonconformists in her family.
No director is as deft as Leigh at depicting the creative side of social work. Two-thirds of the way through, when Poppy shares the plight of that troubled, bellicose little boy with the help of a counselor named Tim (Samuel Roukin), the two adults create an oasis of empathy and calm.
Happily, Tim doesn't merely help Poppy. Unlike Scott, he finds her intelligent and sensitive as well as amusing. He clicks with her immediately. We revel in his love for her at first (or maybe second) sight - a measure of how much we grow to care about a woman we fall in love with after 15 minutes.
(Miramax Films) Starring Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan. Directed by Mike Leigh. Rated R for strong language. Time 118 minutes.