Perhaps because a couple of close friends of mine recently became or are in the process of becoming teachers, I’ve lately been struck by a couple of works that’ve used young teachers as a potent metaphor for the rather quintessential realization that grown-ups aren’t other people, they’re us. I talked about this a little when in my New Yorker Reader on Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s story “Yurt,” and thought about it again when watching Sally Hawkins’s force-of-nature performance as the eponymously skylarky elementary school teacher in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. And maybe it’s just because of where I’m coming from, but I think that many critics aren’t honing in on the specificity of the movie’s message and how it communicates it. Yes, the movie is about a philosophical outlook — it’s a comedy about being of good cheer as a response to a world as unrelentingly harsh as the world of Leigh’s echt-miserabilist Naked or Vera Drake — but it’s also a movie about life as a process of continuing education, about people as each other’s teachers and our responsibility towards a shared environment.
I’m tempted to be a bit too cute and say that this is Leigh’s first color film — it’s not, but compare the beaten-out working-class drabs of Leigh’s other films to the Crayola (mini) skirts and (off-shoulder) sweaters on Hawkins’s Polly. For that matter, Polly seems ecstatic, maybe childish in other ways: she’s chatty, almost compulsively, in that way that kids have of constantly confirming (and drawing attention to) their contact with the world by narrating their place in it. When you see her and her friends dancing drunkenly at a disco on Saturday night, and then making bird costumes with her class of little ones on Monday morning, you at first wonder if she’s not one of those people who became a teacher because their outlook is essentially a kid’s.
It’s perhaps a bit manipulative for Leigh to start you off thinking like this and then try to force an evolution in your understanding of Polly, but it’s a well-executed reveal, as Polly shows more layers of her personality over the course of a film — although she perhaps becomes less grating, it’s a matter less of her dawning awareness of the bigness and badness of the world than of our dawning understanding of her personality as a way of dealing with it. (We start out thinking she’s kind of a passive parrot-y conversationalist, but come to see how good she is at helping other people say what they want to say.)
We see Polly interact with people the world has failed — a perhaps too conspicuously magical encounter with a homeless man, but also, throughout the movie, with her bitter, warped driving instructor, bullied at school and essentially a ranting drop-out. (Good call by Leigh zeroing in on driving instructors as the most miserable people in the world, incidentally.) Polly comes off, in both her blithe spirit and, it turns out, her unforced compassion, as a best-case scenario. Turns she’s a teacher out of a commitment to giving people the best and earliest possible support and shot at happiness. (Leigh’s vision of the education system is multicolored and features a rosily effective demonstration of social services at work.)
There are teachers throughout the movie, in fact — not just Polly and her flatmate and colleagues but also an oversharing dancer who teachers an evening flamenco class, and Scott, the driving instructor. The whole world, even the adult world, is like a classroom (“Are we there yet?”, Polly is asked in re: adulthood), and what’s required of everybody is the same thing that’s required of an elementary school teacher: patience and positivity and support and belief in the necessity and possibility of happiness. Polly isn’t oblivious to things like responsibility and security and romantic need — despite what Polly’s mortgaged, pregnant sister insists — but rather seems to have decided that unembarrassed play (she trampolines after school!) isn’t incompatible with those things, and can perhaps make them a little less fearful.
The movie is perhaps a bit of a jerry-rigged construction — Scott’s perfect, foaming (at the mouth) storm of racism and sexual loneliness and out-and-out psychosis embodied by Scott is perhaps too neat, for instance (Leigh gives him a revised version of David Thewlis’s 666 rant from Naked). But then again, Eddie Marsan’s performance has cussed momentum. Indeed, the whole movie is consistently funny and surprising, and Hawkins, especially, is marvelous — a bowlful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
Happy-Go-Lucky played at the New York Film Festival this Saturday and Sunday; Miramax will release the film on Friday, October 10.