You don’t have to be a screenwriter to know the structure of 99 percent of all Hollywood scripts. See enough movies, and you can see the “meet-cute,” the “Act 2 conflict” and the “11th hour reveal” coming from miles away.
It’s the predictability of most movies that makes the work of Mike Leigh so refreshing. If you’ve ever seen one — the Oscar-nominated “Secrets and Lies” or “Vera Drake,” perhaps, or “Career Girls,” “Life is Sweet,” “Topsy-Turvy” or “High Hopes,” to name a few — you know that his films present unforgettable characters and fascinatingly intimate stories, but do so within structures that feel organic and lifelike, slowly and subtly working their way toward the audience understanding just who these people are and what guides their behavior.
That’s definitely the spirit that Leigh brings to his new film, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which seems at first to be a somewhat aimless series of scenes about Poppy (the engaging Sally Hawkins), a grammar school teacher with an eternal sense of optimism. Rather than impose a plot on the film (Poppy falls in love! Poppy find the jewel thieves!), “Happy-Go-Lucky” gives us a fly-on-the-wall look at her life, whether she’s preparing lesson plans with her best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), visiting her highly strung pregnant sister, helping out a troubled student or exasperating her fellow pedagogues — Karina Fernandez as a Flamenco teacher and Eddie Marsan as Scott, Poppy’s humorless driving instructor.
It’s Scott — as rage-filled and bigoted as Poppy is ebullient and life-affirming — who starts out as a background character but winds up being the film’s antagonist, challenging Poppy on her point of view and her way of looking at the world. Graciously, Leigh and Hawkins have given the character enough of a backbone to stand up for herself. This is not a woman easily shaken, after all — the film begins with Poppy getting her bike stolen, prompting her to sign up for driving lessons rather than waste time fuming about the injustice.
The thought of spending two hours with a relentlessly upbeat person in real life, much less in a movie theater, can be daunting, but Hawkins gives us a woman who’s more than just a collection of turn-that-frown-upside-down clichés. Indeed, playing someone sunny without making them totally irritating might be more of a challenge than portraying Lady Macbeth, and Hawkins makes Poppy’s good cheer pragmatic and personable.
The catalyst for making Poppy come completely together as a character is her showdown with Scott, and Marsan (who also played the bad guy in “Hancock”) more than holds his own with Hawkins. Leigh avoids the easy pitfalls — he never tries to explain either character — by giving Hawkins and Marsan enough room to figure these people out and to allow audiences to understand them as much as anyone can ever understand a fellow, complicated, three-dimensional human being.
Movies like “Vera Drake” and “Naked” have given Leigh a very undeserved reputation as a grim sourpuss, but if you watch any of his other films I referenced above, you’ll know he’s someone who sees the humor in life’s darkest moments and who ultimately believes in the resilience — and, without being gross about it, the good — in people. You’ll definitely walk away from “Happy-Go-Lucky” sharing that feeling.