Some movie characters are much bigger than their film. They help define a time, reflect an ethos or set such a stunning example that audiences anoint the character a classic. I don’t think Poppy from writer/director Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky quite reaches these lofty heights, but the irrepressibly optimistic heroine couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time.
In a stretch of history when all the news seems drenched in apocalyptic negativity, perhaps a character with Poppy’s outlook is exactly what we need. She’s a single, middle-aged teacher impervious to bad mojo, oblivious to rudeness and unaffected by society’s ills. When her bike gets stolen early in the film, she says to nobody in particular, “And I didn’t even get to say goodbye.” And that’s it. She moves on, smiling all the way.
I found myself mesmerized by Poppy’s impenetrable bubble of optimism. She’s borderline manic, often downright annoying. In fact, I spent the first 30 minutes of the film openly questioning whether I could last two hours with such an irrationally hopeful character. But the longer Leigh puts Poppy through everyday motions—taking Flamenco lessons, teaching at her elementary school, partying at a rave—the more you get the sense there’s something deeper at play. Hold onto that feeling. The third act of this patient character study delivers a few necessary surprises.
Sally Hawkins deserves the bulk of the praise for keeping Poppy so interesting. Her sneaky smile seems so natural, her little quips so spot-on, and her rapport with the other characters displays the true patter of awkward conversation. The best scenes come when Poppy’s forced to share a car with a high-strung driving instructor (Eddie Marsan). Even in the face of bald detestation and harsh criticism, Poppy perseveres.
The film offers a simple message of hope, and even those stingiest with their emotions will find it hard not to embrace. In one scene, Poppy’s friends try to nudge her to reality, telling her she can’t possibly make everyone happy. “There’s no harm in trying, though, is there?” she replies. After a little trepidation, I’d say, no, there’s not.