Very early on in Happy-Go-Lucky it seems that Mike Leigh's latest middle-class creation, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), may be just another young head-in-the-clouds hedonist. Fresh from bouncing to the sounds of Pulp's "Common People" at a dance hall with friends, Poppy removes a pair of raw chicken breasts from her bra to the divided reactions of repulsion and joy from her ladies. "Why do you do that?" asks one, "Because it makes me feel good", she responds.
But it's a bit of dialogue in the next scene that reveals Poppy's true identity. When probed by her roommate as to why she didn't want to teach her elementary students about chickens, Poppy gives a smiley reply: "They can't fly!... lazy buggers." It's that simple answer that explains this most optimistic of screen characters in an age when sourpusses and dark hearts are often the most celebrated (see last year's Best Actor nominees). Even sweethearts like Michael Cera in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist have to frown around for fear that the audience might feel cheated by a bit too much day-glow.
Indeed, some of the audience members I walked out of the theater with expressed that the syrup of Happy-Go-Lucky was a bit too heavy for their entire two hour intake. Anticipating tragedy, a rotten twist, or a mentally ill explanation for Poppy's over-the-top positivity, there was a vibe of befuddlement among some of my fellow theater friends (audiences have been conditioned to react this way... dreariness and nihilism are the real cliches of modern art). But that's kind of the point. In interviews, Leigh rejects the idea that he's a pessimistic artist. That charge comes from critics who a have a preconceived notion about life among the English working class, one that Leigh most often portrays.
It's the dichotomy among characters like Poppy and Happy-Go-Lucky's other central focus, Scott (Eddie Marsan), that proves the often overlooked complexity in Leigh's films. Like a more extreme example of Annie and Hannah in Career Girls, Poppy and Scott provoke the best and worst in each other, ultimately coming out the other side wiser for it.
Scott is Poppy's driving instructor. A proud, independent worker that lives on the fringe in both his private and public lives, Scott rejects handshakes, lets out charged ethnic stereotypes, and spouts conspiracy theories like memorized religious verse. You get the impression that Scott may have once belonged to a gang of youth nationalists similar to the disaffected teenagers in Shane Meadow's This Is England. But Leigh is never one to crucify. He's a humanist filmmaker because he refuses to leave even the most flawed among us to the wolves of quick judgment. (This is what gave the balance of Vera Drake such power).
Ultimately, Poppy makes others (in the audience and on screen) uncomfortable because she appears to have things figured out. No, nothing so profound as the "meaning of life" or any other existential question that someone like Naked's Johnny would tear himself inside-out over, but on the philosophy of daily living. Poppy never addresses her discovery directly, but you can see its glow when Leigh contrasts her with other - not even necessarily negative - characters such as her roommate and pregnant sister. The way Happy-Go-Lucky leaves you with a new found buzz after confronting you with kindness is the reason we go to movies.