If it hasn’t yet come to your city, start monitoring the multiplexes. If it’s already playing where you live, maybe you should pick up some tickets for tonight (You can always watch Heroes online.)
Because Happy-Go-Lucky, the new film from Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake auteur Mike Leigh, is as exhilarating a cinematic experience as you are likely to have this year.
Are those big words? Yes. Do I mean them? Absolutely. Between this and Rachel Getting Married, the fall has embarrassed us with riches. Usually, I’m lucky to find two movies a year that I want everyone to see, and this time, I’ve seen two in just a few weeks. Throw in T.I.’s new song and the promise of a great season of Lost, and you’ll see why I’m in a good mood right now. (Well, that and this really delicious honey bun I’m eating.)
But anyway… Plenty of critics have discussed why this movie, about a London primary school teacher who has mastered being happy, is so remarkable. At Salon, Stephanie Zacharek points out that Sally Hawkins (as the teacher, Poppy) creates layer after layer in her character, letting us see that her kindness is not the product of simple-mindedness. Rather, Poppy is a “screwball humanist” who has worked out a way to live openly and intelligently.
In The New Yorker, David Denby applies that philosophy to the whole movie. “It’s an argument for making one’s way through life with a relaxed will and an open heart,” he says.
I haven’t given you much plot, but like all Leigh films, plot feels secondary here. Everything is in service to a grander idea.
That said, the movie is not an esoteric drag. It’s actually loads of fun: There are hilarious scenes, like Poppy’s tango classes and her regular driving lessons with her misanthropic instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan.)
Her final lesson with Scott is also a lynchpin to the film. It changes from funny to terrifying to transcendent in about three minutes, and it has even more impact because of a weird scene in the middle of the film. I’ll discuss that after the jump.
So… just before her last lesson with Scott, Poppy sees him spying on her house. Even though he’s a racist, anarchic narcissist who believes the entire world is shit, he hasn’t been able to resist Poppy’s charms. Even though he chastises her for driving in inappropriate boots and for not taking his special “mirror rules” seriously, he falls for her.
That’s the set-up of a cheesy romantic comedy…Â but wait. After she catches him spying, Poppy doesn’t cancel her lesson. While they’re in the car, Scott is so embarrassed that he blows up at her, crying and screaming because she led him on and made him feel foolish.
And if this were most films, this is where Scott would become a psycho killer. However, thanks to Marsan and Hawkins, we can see he’s just a wounded, frightened person who desperately wants love but doesn’t believes he’ll get it
Poppy walks away from him for good–he smacks her in the head, after all–but what’s incredible about her departure is that she’s gentle with the man. Both characters retain their dignity
And why? Well, the movie suggests that this generous outcome is possible because Poppy listens to Scott when he breaks down. She doesn’t judge him or run from him or laugh in his face. Instead, she hears him out. And that’s what Scott needs. When he drives away, he’s sad, but he’s calm.
Even better than a “happy” ending–where, I don’t know, Poppy and Scott get married–this is a peaceful ending, where a problem gets solved with generosity and compassion.
And the brilliant thing about Happy-Go-Lucky is that it depicts the symbolic meaning of Scott’s breakdown almost an hour before it happens. In the middle of the film, randomly, Poppy meets a homeless man in “a dark tangle of streets” (as Zacharek calls them.) And even though he’s obviously mad, even though he could be dangerous, Poppy talks to him. She listens to his ramblings.
Paraphrasing Zacharek, Poppy realizes that what she’s doing could get her killed, yet her decision to stay with the bum reflects “the desire to connect rather than deflect.”
She leaves unhurt, and later, she refuses to tell her roommate where she’s been. How could she? It’s obvious the scene has taken her (and us) out of the real world. How could she tell her flatmate that she’s just seen the essence of a spiritual wound?
But that’s what it was. The scene with the homeless man is a symbolic expression of what happens in the car with Scott. A person with no sense of place, aimlessly wandering the streets and spouting things no one else will acknowledge?Â That’s exactly who Scott is. Inside, he’s rootless, blathering, and lost. And in his car–just like in the homeless man’s alley–Poppy has the decency to let the lonely creature speak. She can’t exactly connect with him, but she can let him spill his guts. And she can do it without getting hurt.
In the real world, either of these men could hurt Poppy, but Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t real. It’s a subtle work of fiction, where the fantasy doesn’t come at you on a flying broomstick or in a spaceship, but in the spangly boots of woman who connects with people, no matter how misunderstood.
And for that, the universe rewards her. She learns how to drive, for one thing. And she gets closer to herself. And she ends the movie in a rowboat with her best friend, blissfully wasting a day.
Also? The angry boy in Poppy’s class is another real-world version of the homeless man, and because she treats him gently, the film rewards her with a great new boyfriend. If she hadn’t cared about the boy, then she never would have called in a social worker, and the social worker never would have asked her out.
Some people might call this treacly or infantile, but I call it nourishing. This is the fiction I want to live by. This is the parable I want to carry in my pocket. Every day, I have plenty of chances to give someone the kindness of my undivided attention, and Happy-Go-Lucky reminds me to do it. There’s something in it for the other person, and there’s something in it for me.