Happy-Go-Lucky feels like an interesting precursor to the pair of Paddington films that its leading lady, Sally Hawkins, would go on to appear in, in that both the Paddington films and Happy-Go-Lucky are British features centered on protagonists who are upbeat and kind to everyone in the far harsher world around them. Hawkins, unlike in the Paddington movies, get to be that chipper lead character in Happy-Go-Lucky, which is entirely focused on a schoolteacher named Poppy and if you've seen Hawkins in any movie besides Godzilla (where she was bizarrely relegated to an almost dialogue-free part as Ken Watanabe's generic assistant), you know she's got more than enough talent to pull off such a role with finesse.
We get introduced to Poppy by way of her going into a bookstore and, while browsing the shelves, trying to make small talk with the clerk working at the store. She repeatedly tries to get this stone-faced fella to engage in her conversation, a task that Hawkins deftly makes clear isn't because Poppy isn't trying to aggravate this guy or just looking for attention, she just loves to chat with anyone who crosses her path. Poppy's natural disposition is to confront any person in front of her with a cheery attitude and an inquisitive spirit that has her wanting to get to know them better, something that makes her stand out in a world that's usually more downbeat and self-centered.
All of that information gets clearly conveyed right from Hawkins performance in this opening sequence and Hawkins maintains that level of consideration in how she portrays the unique personality of Poppy throughout the rest of the film, which sees's her going through activities like taking a dance class, working as a teacher and perhaps most importantly learning to drive from Scott (Eddie Marsan), a man who couldn't be more of the opposite of Poppy. Scott is a cranky man who believes the world is a lost cause solely filled with conspiracies designed to drag him down, he has no time for Poppy's jovial antics, he just wants to get their weekly driving lessons over with and for her to remember to wear proper footwear when handling an automobile.
Their sequences together have this SpongeBob/Squidward type of dynamic to them wherein loads of laughs are found in juxtaposing the ultimate pessimist with the definitive optimist. Much of this comedy comes from the top-notch rapport between Hawkins and Marsan (which, apparently, contained numerous improvised dialogue exchanges if Wikipedia is to believed), these two play off each other unbelievably well, particularly in regards to the assorted off-the-cuff bits of comedic dialogue Hawkins delivers in response to Marsan's characters barrage of negativity. Poppy is such a joyous spirit that not even this cranky driving instructor can break her.
Though she so often seems to have an endless supply of optimism, the thing that makes Poppy work so well as a character is that Mike Leigh's script knows when to have her tone down that side of her personality if the situation calls for it. Hawkins believably draws out a more restrained side of her character when the time calls for it, such as when Poppy and a social services agent are talking to one of Poppy's students who is being abused at home or a separate touching sequence showing Poppy inadvertently spending one evening with a nearby homeless man. The lead character of Happy-Go-Lucky can be as jovial as the day is long but she's also capable of dialing that part of herself back when the situation calls for it, which is such a smartly implemented part of Poppy's personality that makes her feel very much like a complex human being.
That consideration in Leigh's writing towards knowing just when is the right time to have Poppy become more serious is on full display in the climax, which takes the character of Scott into a fascinating direction. Throughout Happy-Go-Lucky, I was wondering where they were taking this character, were they going to have him be miraculously changed for the better by his interactions with Poppy? Turns out that Mike Leigh has a more unique place to take this guy, namely he reveals himself as being romantically attracted to Poppy and feels he's entitled to her, to the point that he grabs Poppy against her will, a turn of events Poppy treats with appropriate severity. There's no attempt to bring back up a tragic backstory as some sort of excuse for Scott's actions here, he's simply an asshole who is incapable of seeing people, especially women that he fancies, as human beings with their own thoughts or desires.
Maybe Poppy's perpetually optimistic vision for the world doesn't align perfectly with the frequently glib atmosphere of the world around her, but as we've seen throughout Happy-Go-Lucky, such an optimistic vision doesn't come at the cost of Poppy seeing the people around her as individual human beings. Poppy's optimism isn't a way of avoiding the complexities of the real world, it's a way to navigate them, whereas Scott's supposedly more grown-up bleak vision of the real world just cuts him off completely from those complexities. There's so much to unpack in how Leigh lays bare the importance of joy and empathy in the climax of Happy-Go-Lucky and its a finale further bolstered by some powerful acting from Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan.
Happy-Go-Lucky isn't just a subtly incorporated meditation on the importance of Poppy's attitude towards life, it's also just a super entertaining movie on so many levels. The interactions between Poppy and her friends are a particular highlight, Poppy and her pals have such realistically natural chemistry together that suggests years of inside jokes, memories and dedication between them all. There's also a memorable flute-heavy score by Gary Yershon that's highly distinctive and lends a zippy energy to Poppy's story while the costume department did an A+ job coming up with outfits for Poppy to wear that just feel perfect for the character. On top of all that you get yet another phenomenal Sally Hawkins performance that proves to be an excellent anchor for the whole feature. Hawkins is 110% believable in her portrayal of this constantly upbeat human being, she's incredibly fun to watch and the same can be said for Happy-Go-Lucky as a whole. We should really put this and the two Paddington movies together for the ultimate triple feature of happiness!