Most of us have known women like Poppy Cross, the heroine of British director Mike Leigh’s newest film. She’s life-loving, spontaneous and possibly a bit crazy. She wears layers and layers of colorful thrift-shop clothes. She seems to lack an internal censor, and sometimes commands complete strangers to smile. She works with kids because only they can match her energy level.
And if we haven’t known her in real life, we’ve certainly seen her spiritual sisters in movies. In films such as Garden State and Sweet November, daffy, offbeat, upbeat girls befriend glum young men and help rescue them from their careerist funks. The type goes all the way back to madcap heiress Katharine Hepburn lifting Cary Grant’s spirits in Bringing Up Baby. The divine ditz character is still so prevalent that Onion critic Nathan Rabin coined a term for her, the “manic pixie dream girl.” He thereby inspired an October segment of “All Things Considered” called “Manic Pixie Dream Girls: A Cinematic Scourge?”
Whether you love this type of female character or hate her, Happy-Go-Lucky is bound to inspire thought, because it’s about the secret life of the manic pixie dream girl. Or rather, a manic pixie dream girl with no glum young man to inspire. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) certainly wouldn’t mind meeting a nice guy or two; when asked how her love life is going, she laments, “Not a sausage!” But, at 30, she’s fairly content to go clubbing with her roommate and sister, then come home to her little London flat and rehash the night with too many cigarettes and a lot of laughs.
Out on her own, in a more bleakly realistic film than the romantic comedies where such characters generally appear, this pixie proves pretty resilient. Poppy’s optimism doesn’t protect her from misfortune. And Leigh, whose slice-of-life films have tended to the cynical, doesn’t mock her as a Candide-like innocent. When one of Poppy’s elementary-school students starts hitting another, she speaks to him with stern sensitivity and calls in the right professionals to handle the situation. When her bike is stolen on the street, she shrugs and signs up for driving lessons.
That’s how Poppy encounters her biggest challenge: Scott, a depressed, by-the-book driving instructor who’s offended to exasperation by her preference for piloting a car in spike heels. In a Hollywood romantic comedy, Scott would be played by Ben Affleck or Zach Braff, and Poppy would eventually help him lose the Type A intensity and discover his fun side. Here he’s played by glowering character actor Eddie Marsan, and once he reveals to Poppy that he’s a casual racist and conspiracy theorist, romance isn’t an option. Writer-director Leigh excels at rendering the kind of clenched-jawed urban civility people show when interacting with those they see as not my kind. The driving-lesson scenes, alternately tense and hilarious, are a small masterpiece in that genre.
It’s hard to pin down the genre of Happy-Go-Lucky, which is more a series of sitcom-style vignettes than a plotted film. Some scenes are as light and fizzy as “Sex and the City,” others as dark as an urban-paranoia flick, and occasionally a comic scene darkens unexpectedly. Some subplots seem pointless, like the one where Poppy joins a colleague for flamenco lessons, yet in an odd way they’re perfect. We see just how good Hawkins is in that dance-lesson scene, one of the few times Poppy is forced to keep her mouth shut. Her face and body language tell us she’s dying to mock the solemnity of flamenco, yet she also seems to wonder if there’s a power in this proud, inflexible art form that she doesn’t quite understand.
What Poppy and her real-life equivalents don’t understand is tragedy and the obsessive mentality that drives it — just as people like the driving instructor can’t grasp or tolerate her irreverent buoyancy. In your average manic-pixie-dream-girl movie, charm conquers all. In real life, angry, intense, divisive impulses just as often carry the day. Leigh has made the rare movie that shows us both sides.