The opening scenes of Mike Leigh's latest slice-of-life dramedy Happy-Go-Lucky introduce a protagonist who appears psychologically disordered at worst, and highly annoying at best. Sally Hawkins plays an incessant chatterbox with no apparent understanding of how her attempts to spread sunshine are being received by the shopkeepers and passersby who suffer through them. We later learn that Hawkins is a primary school teacher, which is no surprise, since she's the kind of childlike free spirit who relates well to kids. But it is surprising to learn that she's such a conscientious teacher, who goes the extra mile to figure out what's wrong with one of her more violent pupils. And it's reassuring to discover that she has such close friends, including a cynical roommate who rolls her eyes at Hawkins' optimism, but obviously prefers Hawkins just as she is.
Much of Happy-Go-Lucky is dedicated to alternately confirming or defying our initial impressions of Hawkins. Throughout the movie, Leigh contrasts his heroine with other teachers—most notably prickly driving instructor Eddie Marson, who has an entirely different set of methods and philosophies. Leigh also sets Hawkins against other manic types, including a babbling homeless man that she vainly tries to help. Happy-Go-Lucky seems to be asking where a woman as upbeat and seemingly naïve as Hawkins fits in this world. Does she need to grow up (or at least shut up)? And will she lose something essential if she does?
Typically, Leigh withholds his own judgment as to whether Hawkins is a delight or a terror. But he does create a noticeable tension between the audience's expectations and the way the story plays out. He seems to be setting us up for something horrible to happen. Also typical of Leigh, when that other shoe finally does drop, it doesn't quite land where we might've guessed. In the end, Happy-Go-Lucky isn't saying anything far-reaching about this modern world and how it corrupts the innocent. It's just an exercise in conflicting personalities, that constantly asks, "Who would you rather be?"