The Austin Chronicle

A Glass-Half-Full Kinda Gal


By Kevin Kelly, October 10, 2008, Screens

In a parallel universe, Amélie has an even quirkier sister named Poppy who inhabits the world of Mike Leigh's newest film, Happy-Go-Lucky. But where Amélie is a naive introvert, Poppy is an extroverted bundle of sophisticated energy. She's also the last character you'd expect to find in one of Leigh's films, which tend to be darker. "Every time I make a film, I do something new," Leigh remarks, "and that's very deliberate."

Even so, Poppy, who is excellently played by Sally Hawkins in her third collaboration with Leigh, is filled with the sort of ebullient energy that grates on most people's nerves after a few minutes. Her bike gets stolen; she laughs it off. She injures her back, needs a spinal adjustment, and giggles all the way through it. Even when she's saddled with an antagonist, an angry driving instructor named Scott (Eddie Marsan), she constantly does her best to cheer him up.

In the opening moments of the film, not long after the bike theft, it's unsure if you can bear someone this cheerful for a full two hours. In fact, she's so happy all the time that you're certain something awful is going to happen to her. When she starts taking driving lessons, you're sure she'll have a fatal accident. That twinge in her back after trampolining? Surely that will turn out to be a tumor on her spine.

Along the way, Poppy encounters some of the ugliness of the world: a pupil who acts out, a homeless man, and Scott's angry lashing out. These prove to be brief but significant roadblocks for her along the way. "When things happen, she deals with them," says Leigh. "She looks them in the eye, and she deals with it. She's both tough and sympathetic. Sure you can have a character get run over by a bus ... but so what?"

Despite this, you come to realize that she inhabits the same world we do, it's just that she has an incredibly cheerful outlook on all of it. By the time she has one of the most terrifically awkward (and charming) first dates since Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court in Say Anything, she's already won you over. And so has Leigh with this film, which is easily his most cheerful since 1999's Topsy-Turvy.

Leigh, who continues to work without a script or box-office stars, puts his films together by rehearsing and improvising with actors for six months before shooting. "I write a structure," he explains. "It's a very loose thing, and it's there to be built on or deviated from, because the job really is to get out and make the film up while we shoot it."

Although the style has served him well, it has also limited his access to funding, which frustrates him. He pines for a larger budget. "I'm very keen to do a film about J.M.W. Turner, the great English painter who, without his knowing it, was the father of impressionism. But I've made 18 full-length films, and nobody's interfered with any of them." A claim hard for most other directors to make.

Friday, Oct. 17, 7pm, Arbor.

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