Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, is a great “hang-out movie.” Here are five other pictures that keep company with likable types.
The elevator pitch for Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is simple: A plucky primary school teacher takes driving lessons with an increasingly unhinged instructor. But like all Mike Leigh movies, the delicious fleshy bits are hard to describe in marketing jargon; the pleasure of the film is simply spending time with Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and her girlfriends. The opening credits set the tone, as Poppy bikes through the sunny streets of Camden, enjoying the wind in her messy brown hair and smiling at passerby. She flirts and jokes with a grumbly bookstore clerk who looks at her like she’s crazy, and when she discovers her bike has been stolen, she protests mildly, “I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye!”
Poppy, and in turn Happy-Go-Lucky, is a litmus test of sorts: Your response says more about you than it does about the movie. If you enjoy Poppy’s company, you'll never want to leave, but if you find her constant mugging aggravating, you’re probably not alone. The people she annoys include the aforementioned book clerk, her pregnant sister, and most importantly Scott (Eddie Marsan), her driving instructor. Scott is funny at first, in an off-kilter way. He refers to the rear view mirror as “En-Ra-Ha” and lectures his new student about driving in high-heeled boots, but his eccentricities are darker and more dangerous than they first appear.
Still, this is Poppy’s story, and we’re along for the ride, watching as she chucks silicon bra inserts at her drunk pals and gets her back cracked by a handsome physical therapist. Poppy’s teases and jokes and flirts seem like tics, but further viewings of Happy-Go-Lucky peel away her layers. In quieter moments—like when she gently questions a student about his bullying or when she tries to calm down Scott—the empathy on Poppy’s face belies her bubbly babbling. There's something a bit dark in this character, maybe even a little bit self-destructive, and it surfaces when she tries to help damaged souls. As it happens, the majority of the damaged souls she encounters here are men.
As much as Poppy protests her life is happy—and it mostly is—Leigh protests that he’s no crank. A rejoinder to British miserabilism, Happy-Go-Lucky is rich with splashes of color; one of the most stunning shots of the movie is of Poppy on the trampoline, bouncing in and out of frame against a bright yellow wall. Leigh makes great use of Hawkins’ expressive face, with plenty of close-up shots of intimate pub conversations, late-night chats, and the interior of Scott’s car, where Poppy endures a sort of crucible, the film demonstrating just how far she can be pushed.
Such intimacy isn’t easy to achieve. Leigh is known for his intense workshopping process, which entails developing characters with actors over several months before filming. Hawkins, who also appeared in Vera Drake and All Or Nothing, has been called the director’s “muse.” But whatever the method the two employed with Happy-Go-Lucky, it’s resulted in an unforgettable character and viewing experience.
Availability: Happy-Go-Lucky is available on Blu-ray and DVD, to stream from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital providers.