'Happy-Go-Lucky' deeper than it looks

Al Alexander

You’ve probably never heard of Sally Hawkins, but the charming Brit is about to make a name for herself on the strength of her mesmerizing turn in Mike Leigh’s deeper-than-it-looks comedy "Happy-Go-Lucky.''

As Poppy, a blissfully optimistic 30-year-old London schoolteacher, Hawkins summons a performance deftly straddling the line between nutso and profound in fleshing out a woman who steadfastly refuses to let life get the best of her sparkling disposition.

Hawkins twists your mind in so many knots with her constant giddiness, you’re never sure if Poppy is deserving of a warm, fuzzy hug or a rap across the knuckles for being so blissfully clueless.

Which is exactly the point of Leigh’s intriguing exploration of what constitutes happiness.

Why do some people have it and others don’t? And why do we feel the need to strive for something so elusive?

In Leigh’s view it’s all about perception, and he admirably leaves it up to the audience to decide if Poppy is a poster child for positive thinking, or a major crackpot.

You love Poppy. You hate Poppy. And back and forth it goes like an existential tennis match. And Hawkins and Leigh ("Secrets & Lies,'' "Vera Drake'') don’t just sit back and volley. They crash the net in nearly every scene, refusing to play it safe by forgoing any sort of plot or character arc.

Poppy is the same at the end as she is at the start, despite a spate of calamities that befall her, from a wrenched back, to a jealous and bitter older sister, to a bully in her classroom.

But a funny thing happens along the way, and I’m not just talking about Poppy’s hilariously intense flamenco instructor (a scene-stealing Karina Fernandez).

No, I’m talking about you, the audience. It’s you that grows and transforms, as Leigh presents a subtle, but convincing, argument against expending negative energy on things you have zero control over.

See, I told you it was deceptively deep. But it’s also highly amusing, slapping a wide grin on your face from the opening scenes, when a smug bookstore proprietor tests Poppy’s perseverance, to the very end, when Poppy reaffirms our faith in humanity by proving there’s no weapon more disarming than a sincere smile.

And "Happy'' generates plenty of them, aided by a brilliant assemblage of actors (a Leigh trademark), beginning with Hawkins, who dazzles with her ability to add complexity to a character who at first sight seems utterly shallow.

She’s been provided two superb sounding boards as well in newcomer Alexis Zegerman as Poppy’s roommate and best pal, Zoe; and especially Eddie Marsan ("Sixty Six'') as the uptight and cynical instructor Poppy hires to teach her to drive after her beloved bicycle is stolen.

My only beef, and it’s a small one, is that there aren’t nearly enough scenes between Hawkins and Marsan, who create tremendous chemistry in representing opposite ends of the happiness spectrum.

But for the most part, Leigh and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dick Pope, get just about every detail right, melding brains, humor and heart into a highly accessible work of art that more than lives up to its title.

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The Patriot Ledger

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (R for language.) Cast includes Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan and Alexis Zegerman. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. At Kendall Square, Cambridge.