Poppy, the perky Brit in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” isn’t just “on” all the time. She’s a walking grin machine, a woman whose endless patter is interrupted only by her inane giggling.
It’s exhausting to spend five minutes with her. But famed director Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies”) makes two hours in Poppy’s company a palpable film experience.
Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a 30-year-old primary school teacher easily confused for a precocious teen. She’s unmarried and unconcerned about that fact. Actually, nothing seems to faze her. When her bike is stolen during the film’s opening sequence, she lets out a brief sigh and complains she never got a chance to say “goodbye” to it.
Her happiness bubble gets burst when she signs up for driving lessons. Her instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), is her polar opposite. He’s a simmering volcano of a man, a professional who takes his work so seriously there’s no room for humor.
How he lasts a single car ride with Poppy is one of the film’s many unsolved mysteries.
“Happy-Go-Lucky” meanders more than a character study should. Some scenes, like an encounter with a mildly deranged homeless man, add nothing to our understanding of the mercurial Poppy. But that seems to be Leigh’s master plan. And while it’s a blueprint for boredom at times, the film blazes to life whenever Poppy gets behind the wheel.
Hawkins is generating plenty of Oscar talk for playing Poppy, and it’s the kind of showy, unbridled performance that snaps voters’ heads around. But why isn’t Marsan being mentioned as a Best Supporting Actor nominee? It’s rare to see a one-note performance delivered with so many microscopic shades.
Audiences may find “Happy-Go-Lucky” as off-putting as its heroine’s chirpy facade. But the rewards of spending time with Poppy, and Leigh’s unconventional story, soon become apparent.
(Photo: Sally Hawkins plays the irrepressible Poppy in the new film “Happy-Go-Lucky.” Photo credit: Simon Mein/ Courtesy of Miramax Films)