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DVD Review: Happy-Go-Lucky

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It’s rare that I watch a movie and have it affect my mood the next day. But after seeing Happy-Go-Lucky, I felt encouraged to behave more like Poppy Cross, the film’s main character. She’s always laughing and keeping bad days in perspective. She sounds like a bomb about to explode, right? Nope. Poppy charmed the heck out of me and I found her hilariously perplexing.

Happy-Go-Lucky is a series of peeks into the life of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a kooky 30-year-old first grade teacher who lives in a North London apartment with her long-time best friend and fellow teacher Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). Poppy is one of life’s anomalies, possessing a fulfilling life where fun and responsibility are sometimes interchangeable. One night she’s a club girl hanging out with Zoe, and her younger sister Suzy. The following morning she’s wearing a paper bag mask and flapping around her classroom with her students. Poppy is also one of those people who never stops telling jokes. Even when getting her back straightened by a chiropractor, she’s giddy. She’s not delusional; she’s just trying to keep her spirits up.

Poppy runs into plenty of bad situations too. She has a troubled student. She also takes weekly driving lessons from an angry teacher named Scott (Eddie Marsan) whom she reads like a laser beam. Paranoid about rules, no social skills and no sense of humor, Scott paints a contrasting picture of unhappiness. Poppy’s personality grows more complex and more desirable as we watch. The scenes, occurring inside a cramped Ford Focus, are both funny and sad.

I have proof that England holds back its best actors for its own films. My evidence is Sally Hawkins. She plays Poppy with the right mixture of bubbliness and thoughtfulness. Additionally, Hawkins possesses one of those irrepressible faces where every little thought has a mind of its own. If she were working in the 1920s, she might have made a good silent film actress. Casting overall is amazing even in small roles.

Happy-Go-Lucky doesn’t stick to how stories are usually told, which is an interesting change. This the first Mike Leigh film I’ve seen. He dreams up a different experience than Hollywood finds in its reusable bag of tricks. He starts with no script. That alone is enough to give your average financier a coronary. Characters and scenes are shaped through improvisation. When you watch the completed movie, you see characters living their lives. Even a bit of an exaggeration like Poppy fits right in.

Leigh doesn’t spend his whole time cluing you in to a bigger plot. Sometimes he likes adding amusing details about everybody. For instance, Suzy is late for a day trip visiting Poppy’s other sister, Helen. When she arrives at the apartment, she’s carrying a sack that’s never seen again. Any college student who ever gotten a chance at getting free laundry will realize exactly what’s in the sack and bust out laughing.

Happy-go-Lucky is just a gorgeous looking picture. Every frame contains all the colors of the rainbow, reflecting Poppy’s optimism. The film’s airy score suits Poppy well as she breezes through each scene. By the end, I hoped someone like her exists in the busy and stressful real world. It’s hard to find the time to do everything that makes you happy. Poppy makes it all seem within reach.

Grade: A

Bonus Features:

Happy-Go-Lucky doesn’t contain lots of extras, but all are filled with lots of filmmaking information and little congratulatory fluff. The audio commentary features director Mike Leigh describing the movie nonstop. If you want to know what he intended for each scene, he’ll tell you. He also clears up the British slang that Poppy uses which makes the movie even funnier. I haven’t seen a movie where a director remembers every little choice he made. For novice film buffs and beginning college students, this is an easy way to attend a lecture about the creative process.

Almost all driving scene featurettes on other DVDs focus on the special equipment they used. Being different, “Behind the Wheel of Happy-Go-Lucky” also describes how the driving relates to the movie’s themes. “Happy In Character” is the main Happy-Go-Lucky documentary. In thirty minutes, it summarizes how Leigh designed the movie as a feature length improvisation. I thought it was interesting how Leigh works with the actors, separately building their characters. Then when it’s time to rehearse or shoot a scene, he introduces the actor for the first time to another actor playing a different character. Much of this segment overlaps with the commentary, but you get to listen to the actor’s experiences too.

Lastly, the sunny colored menu features photos of the cast made to look like paper cutouts as Zoe’s bright yellow Fiat putts across the screen. For a film that operates outside the studio system, that seems appropriate.

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