Leftist confession: I am not a fan of British social realist cinema (see Ken Loach).
It’s not that the films are bad. They’re mostly pretty good. It’s not that I object to their messages – quite the opposite.
It’s more that too many tell their leftist audience things we already know, in often miserable fashion. I’ve dealt with WINZ (New Zealand’s social-welfare-cum-disciplinary-apparatus) extensively, I don’t need I, Daniel Blake to tell me how horrific it is.
If you feel similarly, you may enjoy social realist director Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. While this film does not abandon the genre’s frank portrayal of working class life, it abandons dour didacticism in favour of a willfully funny, perky tone.
Lead character Poppy(Sally Hawkins)’s first line sets this genre-subversive tone: pulling a book from a bookstore shelf, she jokes to herself, “Road to Reality? Don’t wanna be going there!”
Poppy is a cheerful primary school teacher, an utterly believable working class character (despite being unusual by the standards of social realism).
Of course, not everyone clicks with Poppy’s attitude. While most of her close woman friends share a similar disposition (this film passes the Bechtel test easily), her mood particularly clashes with her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan), a strict, lonely, paranoid and dour man. Poppy and Scott’s contrasting approaches to teaching and living; his angry, judgemental and didactic; hers outgoing and empathetic, form central themes of the film. He clearly finds her peppy attitude like fingernails on a blackboard.
Yet even as a depressive socialist myself, I can’t bring myself to dislike Poppy. It helps that she is never preachy: although she tries to cheer people up, she never evangelises about the wonders of positive thinking or the need for people to change their attitude. At one point, when a colleague complains that parents let their children play video games rather than taking them outside, she stands up for parents who may be too exhausted or overworked – clearly marking her distance from the middle-class victim-blaming that gives ‘positive thinking’ a bad name. The film never denies the horrors, the poverty and isolation, of post-Thatcher Britain, and Poppy does not judge others for having trouble coping; she’s empathetic almost to a fault.
Her outlook clearly helps in her primary school job, where she doesn’t have to fake a kid-friendly attitude. Yet unlike, say, Amelie (an excruciatingly twee film from an otherwise interesting director), Poppy is not infantilised: she’s an adult who just happens to find life amusing. Perhaps it’s a coping strategy, but it’s one that seems to work for her.
In perhaps the film’s least subtle moment, Poppy’s flamenco teacher (she partakes in many extracurricular activities) explains the origin of flamenco in ‘gypsy’ culture:
These guys, they’ve been squashed down by society, for centuries, centuries, and they say, we don’t need this. We got pride. We got dignity. We got heart. We got flamenco.
So perhaps the film isn’t so far from the worthy messages about working class struggle that define social realist cinema. But it’s an unusual take on same.