Happy-Go-Lucky (Leigh, 2008)

Link to my review at Christian Spotlight on Entertainment.

Sally Hawkins gives a knockout performance as Poppy.

I haven’t seen this film topping many (any?) end of year lists, but it sure feels like the film on all the lists that everyone is talking about. Of course, everyone is saying different things about it, which is what makes it so interesting.

My meta-pondering about the film has focused on whether or not that is a good thing. One school of thought (very New Critical that) is that I film should mean what it means, and if it is effective, most people ought to watch it and get mostly the same thing out of it. Another way to think about it, though, is that a film that gets people disagreeing gets people talking about it.

Thinking about Happy-Go-Lucky as a hot-button, provocative film is interesting. People (at least the ones I’ve talked to) don’t seem to merely disagree about whether or not Poppy is happy; they seem to disagree passionately. Which leads me to the question of why we care so much whether Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is truly happy or just putting on a happy face. For me, the answer is somewhat obviously the latter, and the real question becomes whether her ability to do so is healthy, unhealthy, or inconsequential.

If this argument is stacked, it may be because the antagonist who delivers the accusation that Poppy’s carefree attitude is calculated and contributes to his poisonous hatred of the world may be such a hostile and negative character that we reflexively go the other way just to disassociate ourselves from him.

Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film’s post-coda resolution, with Poppy and friend literally rowing around in circles is dripping with irony. Perhaps it does not have the same hostile contempt that Poppy’s driving instructor has for her life, but it does (at least for me) still contain a strong whiff of, “If this is the life your philosophy has gotten you, what does that say for your philosophy?” Poppy is unquestionably happier than the habitually growling inhabitants of her circle, and if the film suggested that she was better off than she might be if she gave in to grousing, I could agree.

But…and this is a big “but” for me, there is a part of me that kept saying perhaps unhappiness is not always an inappropriate response to all situations. Just as physical pain makes Poppy seek out a doctor who treats the cause of her pain, so too can emotional unhappiness spur someone to address the causes of their unhappiness.

Is it better to settle? Is having a relationship that is limited to the current moment with no promise of (nor impetus for) anything further better than being alone? It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with clinging to those pieces of good within a sea of bad. It may actually be noble. But there is something wrong with saying “peace, peace” when there is no peace. So the question becomes, which is Poppy doing?

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