Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is happy-go-lucky to the hilt, and it's being so cheerful that keeps her going. Today she is going on a shopping trip to wander around the stores, and she has taken her bicycle which he props up next to a fence and locks, then goes to a bookstore where she attempts to engage the shopkeeper in conversation, but he is having none of this and refuses to speak to her. This does not dent her disposition, and even when she returns to her bike to discover it has been stolen she's not too upset, only lamenting that she didn't get the chance to say goodbye. Still, it does offer her the excuse to get those driving lessons she's been planning for a while...
Mike Leigh was apparently well known for his miserabilist films, or that's the reputation he thought he had in spite of the amount of genuine laughter many of his works provoked, so Happy-Go-Lucky was inspired by his desire to make a film that featured an upbeat character instead of someone desperate and dejected. He certainly succeeded in that, but for some reason the reaction many viewers had was to be turned off by Poppy, who drove them up the wall with her relentlessly sunny attitude to life. Yet this would appear to have been the point, as it's not as if everyone else in this reacted to her in a positive manner - indeed, as the ending showed there are those who can have a very bad response.
So what could have been lightweight fluff is deepened by the question that Poppy has to face: how can you continue to be happy when there are so many other people out there who are suffering? The answer is that if she didn't laugh she'd cry, an old cliché which proves to be true, as the darker characters here prefer to wallow in their bleak thoughts as if in some way they think they're being more realistic in their worldview. This is encapsulated in the personality of Scott (Eddie Marsan), who is Poppy's driving instructor and almost pathologically bad tempered, with a conspiracy bent to his thinking which puts him at odds with the unending jokiness of his new pupil. We can tell they will clash sooner or later.
But it's not only Scott who is set against Poppy's outlook, as time and again she encounters those who fail to see the bright side as a matter of course, such as her sister Suzy (Kate O'Flynn), a criminal law student and all round grump, or more seriously the little boy in Poppy's class - she is a primary school teacher - who is being abused by his mother's boyfriend and taking out his frustrations on his fellow classmates. So you see, there's plenty of light and shade in what some misinterpreted as a manifesto of the "cheer up, might never happen" brigade. At the heart of this is an expert performance from Hawkins that is not half as irritating as her detractors would have you believe, showing great skill in fleshing out someone who threatened to be sitcom two-dimensional.
There is nevertheless an episodic mood to the film which throws in characters such as the tramp (Stanley Townsend) Poppy meets while out on a late night stroll who seems to have wandered in from Leigh's nineties effort Naked, a sequence which feels out of place. She does go some way to proving that it's nice to be nice, another cliché that almost falls apart under the scrutiny of those like Scott who sees the dark arts at every turn, and cannot understand that not everything in life has been sent to test him to the limits of his mental endurance. Thankfully, Poppy does not suffer a massive tragedy that knocks the good humour out of her, that would have been too contrived, and the message is that she might actually have the right idea in taking her existence on a don't worry be happy level. Another cliché there, but Leigh and his excellent cast make something worthwhile out of them. Music by Gary Yershon.