Friday, November 14, 2008
Miss Bright Side
The other night I saw an interesting little film that has been getting some great reviews: Happy-Go-Lucky, directed by Mike Leigh (probably best known for Secrets & Lies and more recently, Vera Drake). But this is a very different movie than either of those.
It's not ABOUT anything. The only semblance of a plot comes in the last few scenes. It's merely following a character named Poppy through her life as she learns flamenco, takes driver's ed, hangs out with her friends, teachers her young students how to make bird masks out of paper bags, and so forth. What makes it interesting is her unbelievably (yet strangely credible) sunny disposition.
Poppy is cheerful. SUPER cheerful. She agrees with basically anything anyone says. She puts a positive spin on EVERYTHING. She's always trying to make people laugh, even people who really, really don't want to laugh (this means YOU, bitchy wristband woman at the El Rey). So yes, Poppy is supremely annoying. She's fun to watch in the movie, but my friend and I both agreed we wouldn't want to hang out with her for very long in real life. It's unusual that a character who can be so likable on screen would send you running for the hills or reaching for the nearest machete (which, now that I think about it, is most likely not so near) in real life.
All this may make Happy-Go-Lucky sound like a very broad comedy, but as played by Sally Hawkins she's very convincing as an actual human being (albeit a bizarre one). It's a fearless performance - she makes you cringe in every scene by being SO peppy you just want to smack her. Only in a couple scenes does Leigh examine what's underneath Poppy's seemingly blissful exterior, but those are enough to make her come alive. Poppy's relentless optimism is eventually suggested to be a defense mechanism against the half-empty world around her - a disquieting scene with an insane homeless man shows how far she'll put herself at risk just to try to make someone else happy.
In most hands, the premise - "obnoxiously cheerful woman goes through life irritating the hell out of people" - would be met with a one-note execution that ridiculed the lead character, but Leigh grounds everything in reality and actually makes Poppy a psychologically complex character (rare in any film these days, let alone a comedy). In spite of the title, the film watches her deal with a few semi-serious issues like a child in her class experiencing domestic violence, and the rather scary obsession someone in the film develops with her (stalker!!) It's one of those films that becomes more interesting after it ends than while you're watching it, at least for the first time. Upon reflection, it may end up on my Top 10 list this year.
So for you fairly adventurous moviegoers, I suggest you check it out. It's a good film to debate with a friend afterward and find where you stand on the half-full/half-empty debate. As much as I admire Poppy for sticking to her guns and trying her damnedest to promote happiness in the world around her, I'd be too embarrassed to hang out with her in public because she's so awkward. And having a serious conversation about something that bothers me would drive me nuts since she's always looking on the bright side. It begs the question, "How happy do we really want the people around us to be? How cheerful is TOO cheerful?" (My answer: when it departs from reality.)
Though she likely won't get it, Sally Hawkins deserves some love from the Academy in nomination form. The closest comparison I have to her character and performance is Ricky Gervais in "The Office" - funny, but very uncomfortably so - but Happy-Go-Lucky is different in that it expects you to sit back and decide for yourself when - or if - you want to laugh. It's not the kind of comedy that expects you to be amused in a few key places - different people laugh in very different places. I'd like to see Leigh's script nominated too.