Even Scott, the angry racist driving instructor, eventually succumbs to Poppy's goofy charm

Even Scott, the angry racist driving instructor, eventually succumbs to Poppy's goofy charm

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Oscar nomination: Best Original Screenplay – Mike Leigh

Do you know that moment when you open a bottle of champagne, and you can feel the cork moving in your hand, almost of its own volition? It’s like an angel is saying, “Let me out!” In the same way, giggles seem to explode from Sally Hawkins as she plays the irrepressible Poppy in Mike Leigh’s film, Happy-Go-Lucky.

Poppy is a kind, goofy primary school teacher, a PJ Harvey doppelganger in pink, and friend to children and madmen. She dresses as if colorblind, and at first you wonder whether she isn’t a little nuts. Even when she’s in physical pain, she laughs her head off. But her positivity is forceful – to those who find her odd, she keeps smiling, and eventually they smile back. She bounces through the film as if on a perpetual trampoline. Too angular to be sexy, too goofy-faced to be beautiful, she is nonetheless a queen, and my kind of heroine.

Her polar opposite is Scott (Eddie Marsan), a bitter, emotionally stunted, and dictatorial driving instructor. She begins taking lessons from him, and each session is a little war: Pollyanna versus the Nazi. He rails at her about her carelessness, her improper footwear, how she will kill him and herself and all the pedestrians in the road. She grins and laughs, cracks jokes and tries to figure him out, not letting it get her down. Her driving seems to get only marginally better, but they keep at it, meeting every Saturday at noon.

Poppy proves to be a kind of emotional savant. She detects abuse at home in the life of the bully in her class, and listens to the ranting of a homeless man with what seems like perfect comprehension. Her head is filled with more than just fizzy champagne, after all. And her occasional perceptive questions start Scott thinking about her a bit too often. She finds him hanging around her block, and not on Saturday.

But how can a man incapable of happiness really connect to a woman who is incapable of feeling any other way? He can’t – and when Poppy falls for the kind and hunky social worker (Samuel Roukin) who helps her with her bully student, Scott explodes. The resulting confrontation is remarkable not only for the violence of his rage, but the equal steel with which she meets it, and the sympathy in her eyes all the while.

Mike Leigh shot this film mostly on the streets of London, and employed the improvisational style for which he is known. This works especially well with the Cockney interjections of the actors, though I confess I might need to see the film a second time with a translator. (Can anyone tell me what “worra” means?)

See this film! You’ll be happy you did.

Viewing note: We saw this film at the last place it’s showing in the San Diego area, the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas. It was refreshing to hear the clackety-clack of an old-fashioned film projector there. Better hurry if you want to see it on a big screen!