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Cheeky and Charming

British Happy Go Lucky gives lesson in pluck

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Life is a constant process of learning, but often the lesson imparted is not always the one listed in the syllabus, and in an atmosphere of open exchange, the position of tutor and student frequently changes hands. Happy Go Lucky, a new film by Mike Leigh (Vera Drake) has many students in it, but it is the audience that gleans the greatest lesson about growing and giving.

Poppy (played by an ebullient Sally Hawkins) is 30, unmarried, can't drive and loves every minute of her life. An eternal optimist, she's the sort of bubbling personality that folks find either irresistible or completely annoying, but this bohemian grade-school teacher greets friend and foreigner alike—with a cheerful enthusiasm and a forgiving heart. Her upbeat spunk is put to the test, however, when she begins driving lessons with surly instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan), whose hateful cynicism may mask altogether different feelings.

Happy Go Lucky is one of the pluckiest films to come out since Little Miss Sunshine in 2006. Poppy's nonstop blathering is amusing, but threatens to overwhelm us with an abundance of spirit. Leigh's script wisely pairs her with sardonic roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and gloomy sister Suzy (Kate O'Flynn), who do not share her sunny disposition. But this British import is bolder than its American cousin, dealing with troubling topics such as racism and abuse. The fact that Poppy can remain a perpetual Pollyanna while still remaining believable is a testament to both Hawkins' performance and Leigh's plot.

It would be easy to pass Poppy off as simple-minded or naive, but she cannot be so summarily dismissed. Well-educated and a world traveler, she confronts tragic circumstances, such as a pupil with a harmful home life or a lonely transient, with deliberation and compassion, betraying a wisdom and tact that belies her scatterbrained mannerisms. With a musical score that could have come straight out of a BBC mini-series, Poppy's tale comes across as a modern-day Jane Austen novel, its dauntless heroine maintaining a stiff upper lip in spite of life's hardships. Stalwartly accepting the bad with the good, she realizes that the sour times are what gives the taste to the sweet.

Engaging and illuminating, Happy Go Lucky is a treat. Great performances and a heartfelt story give the audience many deserved laughs and a few healthy lessons to ponder.