Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.
I’ve not been nice in the past to the manic pixie dream girl stereotype in films. It’s one of those tropes that, on its surface appears to be progressive but is essentially just another way to service yet another white guy’s fantasies. A film like Happy-Go-Lucky puts the MPDG stereotype front and center in the person of our main character. Like plenty of the movies that are still on my slowly-dwindling list, there was a reason I’ve waited on this.
This is despite the fact that I’m a fan of Sally Hawkins, who is our MPDG. And to be truthful, I should have given this a go some time past. Hawkins deserves the benefit of the doubt, even when I’m not entirely sold on the premise.
Happy-Go-Lucky tells the story of a 30ish woman named Pauline (Hawkins) who is exactly the sort of person who decides not to go by her given name, but calls herself Poppy instead. In fact, I quite appreciated the fact that her real name was Pauline, because “Poppy” is exactly the sort of name that is so on-the-nose in terms how you’d picture the character that it would feel like cheating. Poppy is completely explained in the opening scene. She goes into a bookstore and attempts to engage the worker in conversation, although he’s not biting. When she leaves, she discovers that her bike has been stolen. She’s not upset about the fact that she no longer has a bike; she’s sad that she didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to it. So, yeah…MPDG.
Poppy lives with Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), who, like her, is a primary school teacher. The incident with her bicycle causes Poppy to decide to learn how to drive, which introduces her to Scott (Eddie Marsan), her driving instructor. He is in all ways her opposite. Poppy is bubbly, unable to take a great deal seriously, seemingly frivolous, and takes everyone at face value. Scott is deadly serious, angry, racist, and a bit of a misogynist as well. There initial driving lesson is tense, and this tension continues through the driving lessons we are privy to throughout the film.
And here’s where you’re going to get the turn on my opinion. In a lesser film, Happy-Go-Lucky would be about Poppy teaching Scott not to be a racist and to lighten up a little and have fun. We’d watch her break down his barriers and he would learn to smile and laugh and enjoy life and find the fun in everything he does. And that is absolutely not the movie we get, which is absolutely why Happy-Go-Lucky works at all.
In fact, while Scott is absolutely repressed in virtually all ways and seems to have a burgeoning interest in Poppy, his affections are entirely unrequited. Poppy, who seems frivolous and flighty—laughing at the fact that she has hurt her back and giggling every time there is a twinge of pain—is not the airhead the movie paints for us initially. Noticing that one of her students is acting the bully, she doesn’t reprimand him or punish him, but contacts Tim (Samuel Roukin), a social worker, who discovers that the boy is being abused by his mother’s boyfriend. And this moment causes the beginnings of a relationship between Poppy and Tim—and this happens a good halfway or more through the film, so it’s not anywhere close to the film’s main focus.
To really discuss what Happy-Go-Lucky does right, I need to put the rest of this under a spoiler warning, so…you’ve been warned.
Ultimately, there is a confrontation between Scott and Poppy. He accuses her of not taking her driving seriously, and thus not taking him seriously. In fact, he accuses her of being a tease and leading him on, taking the lessons just to make his life as terrible and miserable as she can. This comes after he more or less assaults her in his car, a near-perfect recreation of the sort of “nice guy” syndrome that so many men fall for. Scott isn’t a nice guy; he’s an asshole who thinks that he somehow has earned a relationship with her—that she is something to be won. And this is the brilliance of the movie. It doesn’t go there. Poppy manages to have moments that don’t involve her laughing at the world but dealing seriously with someone else’s entitlement before moving on.
If there’s an issue here, it might be in the character of Poppy herself. She does get a bit annoying at times. Sally Hawkins is an absolute treasure, but Poppy is the sort of person who doesn’t shut up and who has a comment for everything that happens. I mean, I do root for her in the film and she’s clearly the center of the movie, but there are times when I want her to stop.
Despite this, Happy-Go-Lucky is completely empowering. In a scene with her younger, pregnant sister, Poppy extols the virtue of her unmarried, apartment-dwelling existence. Her sister wants her to settle down, get on the “property ladder” and have a child and Poppy has decided instead to live the life that she wants to. It’s a good reminder that we should live our lives for ourselves and to please ourselves. Poppy might be annoying, but she’s not wrong.
Why to watch Happy-Go-Lucky Sally Hawkins is a treasure.
Why not to watch: There are real potential issues with character here.