One of the most disarming things about “Happy-Go-Lucky” is how damned normal it is.
London grade-school teacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is utterly without guile or malice. This 30-year-old single woman isn’t nursing deep psychological wounds or agonizing through bouts of loneliness and depression.
Poppy just wants to have a good time. She enjoys people, even if they don’t always enjoy her back, and she genuinely enjoys her life.
Her unvarnished cheerfulness makes the film a bit revolutionary in its own modest way. Writer-director Mike Leigh is not one to shy away from angst, but “Happy-Go-Lucky” has the gumption to present compassion, kindness and good cheer as traits that aren’t emblematic of anything beyond what they appear to be: decency.
The shuffling comedy-drama hinges on the most threadbare of story lines, but it is characterization here, not plot, that propels things along. The plot, such as it is, is triggered when Poppy’s bicycle is stolen. The theft prompts her to sign up for driving lessons. Her instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), is the antithesis of Poppy; he is a glowering, tightly wound misanthrope.
Hawkins is stunning in it. Her performance keeps Poppy from spiraling into caricature. She is charming and annoying, sometimes both at once. Viewers are likely to find themselves smitten by her, even when they can also understand why some characters find Poppy more than grating. That curious tension helps give “Happy-Go-Lucky” its forward momentum. For a movie in which nothing much really happens, it percolates with uncertainty.