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?

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?"

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