The sunshiny primary-school teacher nicknamed Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Mike Leigh's exuberant comedy Happy-Go-Lucky is the kind of relentless optimist one might worry about in real life. Doesn't this woman ever stop beaming and twittering? Living with her best friend (an indispensably vibrant Alexis Zegerman) in a cheery boho flat, Poppy experiences theft, a wrenched back, a troubled young student, a deranged homeless man, a hypercritical sister, and a really angry, uptight, apoplectically weird driving instructor (the marvelous Eddie Marsan). And still she laughs. What's wrong with her?
The point is, nothing. The London universe Leigh creates (employing his trademark improv techniques to unite his ensemble, many of whom make their film debuts) isn't so much a reality as a hope, and an invitation to find joy and grace in everyday moments. It's a wish all the more endearing coming from a filmmaker best known for drabber dramas of family dysfunction and British miserablism like Vera Drake and Secrets & Lies. And that grace is made manifest by Hawkins' sparkling performance in a role the filmmaker created specifically for her twiggy charms. Hawkins imbues Poppy with an innate effervescence that plays off beautifully against adversity. Leigh, meanwhile, cushions those adversities with bright texture and jolly music, concluding with an image of realistic contentment in a rowboat, on a lake that's hard to beat at a time when we really need it. A–