Mike Leigh's new film, Happy-Go-Lucky, is a fascinating character study of a kooky, 30-year-old, pixie-like primary-school teacher, who goes by the name Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins). She dresses in bright colours and clomps about in high boots like a children's entertainer. She's a compulsive joker, fond of sexual innuendoes and word play, which are spurted out in gusts and fits of giggles like a verbal bebop solo.
Though the woman has no whiff of piety about her, you can't help suspecting Poppy (short for Pauline) may be a saint. When someone steals her bicycle in the opening scene of the film, she mocks her own misfortune: "We didn't even have a chance to say goodbye ... ." At the same time, there's something about Poppy that makes you feel acutely uncomfortable, not just in a Pee-wee Herman sort of way, but because you can't help thinking something dreadful must be in store for her.
When Martin Scorsese made the film Kundun, about the life of the Dalai Lama, he said that, after a career in which he was famous for dealing with tormented, violent characters, he wanted to make a film about something more difficult - simple goodness. The dilemma is a traditional one in allegorical fiction, where evil implies interesting complexity but goodness is dully one-dimensional. But Poppy isn't simply good, she's intrusively so.
With her constant wise-cracking and mugging, she's a pest for attention. When she drops into a used bookstore to have a look around and tries to engage the store clerk in conversation. She comments on his hat and the weather. She picks up a copy of a mathematical text, The Road to Reality and quips, "Don't want to be going there." The clerk refuses to answer. For people like him, Poppy is about as much fun as one of Job's tormentors. Later in the film, when a furious character accuses Poppy of needing to be "adorable," you can see his point. Her irritating goodness is self-conscious and designed, a way that she chooses to live in the world.
Leigh, famous for his intensely workshopped and impeccably acted films ( Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake) can seem condescending to his tongue-tied characters. With a few exceptions ( Topsy-Turvy, about the musical team of Gilbert and Sullivan), he writes characters who are much less smart than he is. But Poppy is not only clever, she is, to use the psychological jargon, self-actualized: "I know I'm lucky," she says at one point. She loves her students.
She loves her sardonic, glamorous roommate Zoë (Alexis Zegerman), with whom she's lived for a decade. And she loves her freedom. (Her character is repeatedly associated with bird imagery, and she wonders aloud what it would be like to fly.) The script makes it clear that Poppy's philosophy wasn't learned at her parents' knees. Her mother, who is never seen, sounds faintly foreboding. One younger sister is comically sullen and fierce; the other is an insufferably smug mother-to-be.
The loss of Poppy's bicycle leads her to pursue further education. She signs up for driving lessons from Scott (Eddie Marsan), a seething, paranoid, religious nut who's Poppy's spiritual opposite, a character as rigid and angry as Poppy is loose and fun-loving. The five driving lessons, each an exquisitely crafted demonstration of character development and scene structure - form the narrative spine of the film. Poppy's fascination with Scott's turmoil leads her to insights about other people in her life.
Shortly after starting driving lessons, she goes along with a colleague to flamenco lessons, where she joins a group of comically doughy-looking English women seeking empowerment from a hilarious, emotionally combustible Spanish dance instructor (Karina Fernandez).
The Education of Poppy, as the film might be titled, involves not only her encounters with Scott, her spiritual opposite, but other aspects of life's rougher stuff. She pulls a muscle while bouncing on a trampoline, but laughs through her pain as a giant physiotherapist cracks her back. When she discovers one of her students is a compulsive bully, she lavishes the boy with concern, and bonds with the handsome social worker who shares her childlike sense of wonder and playfulness.
In the movie's most surreal and theatrical scene, Poppy hears a strange chanting coming from an abandoned lot, and meets an agitated, mentally ill vagrant (Stanley Townsend), mumbling and ranting about real or imagined fears and injustices. You dread that Poppy's going to be raped or beaten senseless. From Poppy's nervous back-and-forth movements, you know she shares that fear. Instead, the two people talk, at weird cross purposes, until the man grows tired of her bottomless empathy and curiosity and wanders off into the night. The teacher has passed her own test.
As refreshing as it is to find a movie that leaves you smiling, it's something much rarer to discover a film that makes you think about what a commitment to happiness really means.