Happy-Go-Lucky (Leigh, 2008): It just is

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Title: Happy-Go-Lucky
Director: Mike Leigh
Language: English
Year: 2008
Critical Reception: Stephanie Zacharek of Salon gave a perfect mark to the film.
Psych Index: In Therapy
In Brief: A film that's going to make good of its title and make you happy, unless you're a Satanist, of course.

Comment (SPOILERS ALERT):
"It's such a loss / For the good guys / Afraid of this life / That it just is / 'Cause everybody dies" - Rilo Kiley, It just is

Fifteen or so minutes into the film (timing uncertain), Poppy (Sally Hawkins) seemed to have thrown her back out. At this point, someone in the audience uttered an 'oh noes,' as we all prepared for a tragedy-of-the-week disease that would surely cripple our heroine physically but not spiritually. Something must be wrong with her, we reasoned. We have been conditioned, to some extent, to expect what health professionals call 'the medical model of disease' in character-study films: we must look for what is going to fall apart, because life is only worth examining after it's infected with a disease. Our protagonist must be flawed - the more tragic, the more appealing s/he is (Hamlet, anyone?) - so personal growth and world revelation can be had by the time the credits roll. Fifteen more minutes hopped by, and Poppy still went about her merry way as one plucky duck living an ordinarily happy life of a primary school teacher. Yet, instead of boring us with trivial details or melodramatic plot points, Poppy, with the knowing and playful look in her eyes, reeled us in so effortlessly, perhaps even in spite of some of our initial reservations. As she stepped out of her student driver car and walked towards the door of her apartment, she turned to Scott (Eddie Marsan) - her driving instructor whose point of view the audience adopted at the moment - and said: "I'm watching you." Yes, she would be, and so would we.

I once had a conversation with someone who claimed that insecurities added much complexity to a person's character or something along that line. If I had the time to give a proper response, I would have pointed to how this statement reflected his judgment about himself and the reason for his inclination to keep at his own shortcomings. Our world view is a mirror of our internal process, as any therapist worth her salt would tell you. Darkness, imperfections, insecurities are a part of humanity, but they are not the total of our complexity. The tortured artists live to tell tortured stories, but there is room for lightness, too, and it doesn't have to be unbearable.

Happy-Go-Lucky was a rare psychology film - if not a therapeutic film - disguised as a small character study drama. Mike Leigh (director) kept cinematic effects to the minimum, letting his characters unveiled in natural progressions, though his camera was always exactly where Leigh wanted the audience to be. The sophistication behind the deceptively simple film worked in tandem with the sophistication behind the deceptively happy Poppy, as they both revealed themselves in richly subtle details. Like her namesake, Poppy was a brightly decorated wildflower (watch for the use of her jewelery in the film). As a symbol of death in some cultures and a symbol of love in others, Poppy existed beyond just her character in the film; her decision to forego moral judgment about herself and others served as a mirror upon which others' moral judgment on themselves and the world could reveal itself. Again, in some therapeutic schools of thought, this would be the ideal therapeutic state for the therapist and her client to be in.

From a certain therapeutic point of view (namely, one that concerns human's private logic and/or childhood influences on the adult's life), Happy-Go-Lucky is an essential viewing. The film illustrated so beautifully how easy for us to pass judgment on a slice of presentation people would give us, and how their way of being could be understood within the context of where they've been emotionally. As annoying as Poppy's plucky way may seem to some of us (understandable reaction, since it is quite often associated with insincerity, for not many people could be that happy in face of so many life nuisances and many people do front a happy face to the world), and as creepy as Scott's paranoia may be, we would be missing many of their surprising character nuances if we had simply framed them as nothing more than moving figures on a screen. Of course, it would be our choice whether to give each other the time of our life or not, just as it was Poppy's choice how she wanted to work it out with Scott. But if there was any desire to see people beyond what they presented, a little patience would come a long way.

In therapy, one way in which a therapist can facilitate empathic understanding is to summarize the emotional state of his/her client. When Scott went on one of his bitter rants about the world, Poppy summed up his entire character's emotional space with just "it's not easy being you, is it?" This was the kind of message that was at the heart of the film: to understand and reach out to someone like Scott, one should look at not only how he got there ("were you picked on in school, Scott?" she asked, hitting yet another sweet spot), but also how this view made him feel about his place in the world. The goal was never to merely play with him like an object for entertainment and what not (which she was guilty of at first, to amuse herself), but to communicate, essentially, to him that another human being for one moment knew what it felt like for him, however superficially or momentarily. Poppy had the knack for crystallizing the emotional core from the stories people tell her, the kind of microskill therapists can only hope to develop to be as astute as hers.

What makes for happiness, the big question hovering over the film, is perhaps just to have someone witness who we are as an emotional being, entangled in our past, present, and future. And that, friends, is also the secret to personal therapy, the reason why therapeutic relationship has often been found to be the central most important factor to successful therapy. Like therapy, and like Poppy, the film offered not only a form of emotional release, but also an opportunity to see how judgment may form - often in the years of our least defensible and therefore beyond our conscious control - and how it could trap us in our wheeling and dealing with the world. This is not to say we should be free of judgment (it's quite natural - even Poppy did it in the film!), or be more like Poppy (who had to learn of her effect on others and be at peace with it). Rather, we might want to inspect the boat we've been put into and recognize that some people just drown, not entirely of their own doing. It maybe an easy way out, in some ways, for the film to offer neither a solution nor a way out. And in some ways, it may be just the right way out. Sometimes, there's not much more you can ascribe to life, other than "it just is."

Clip (MAJOR SPOILERS):



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