Director Mike Leigh wants to test how cynical you really are. With Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the central character in his latest improvised drama, he presents a true dilemma for those who view the glass half empty. You see, schoolteacher Poppy is defiantly (some might say annoyingly) free-spirited and optimistic. All the time. She refuses to take seriously all the things we're told to be serious about. She's funny, undignified, nonjudgmental, sexy and, well, bonkers. She teases grumps, soothes homeless crazies and fears nothing. Bike stolen? She smiles and laments, "I never even got to say goodbye." Suffers from back pain? She giggles with surprise at the hurt. Sad to say, Poppy's an alien among her fellow humans and her goodwill is as heroic as anything Superman has ever done. Shockingly, none of it hides a deep-seated trauma.

Known for his rigorous explorations of despair and kitchen-sink realism, Leigh's deceptively sunny Happy-Go-Lucky takes its relentlessly upbeat protagonist seriously, asking whether a person can navigate the mean world with an open and generous heart. In this age of irony and suspicion, it's a valid dramatic question. And like most of Leigh's films, there isn't much of a plot to hang his ideas on. Instead, he presents another meaty character study, surrounding Poppy with real-world foils that challenge her compassion and frivolity. From her insecure pregnant sister to an intense dancing instructor to an angry xenophobic driving instructor, she fearlessly maintains her kindness no matter what the indignity. Poppy's the tool Leigh uses to unmask the rage and cynicism that dwells in us.

As a result, Happy not only gives us one of the most richly drawn female roles to grace the screen in some time, it dares to ask: What's so wrong with the human race that we can't be a little more like Poppy? This is Leigh at his most accessible, more in sync with such films as Life is Sweet or All or Nothing than his darker, better known work like Naked, Vera Drake and Secrets and Lies. More importantly, he proves that lighthearted doesn't mean lightweight.

This cheery approach becomes the 65-year-old filmmaker, who has a reputation for being a misanthrope. While he may be on familiar turf with Poppy's confrontational driving lessons (which take up a large part of the film), her frothy benevolence reveals Scott the instructor (brilliantly played by Eddie Marsan) as both scarily damaged and poignantly lonely. Poppy is so nakedly compassionate and trusting, at times you fear for her safety. And yet even her encounter with something as dark as child abuse ends up yielding an accidental romance.

Which is exactly Leigh's argument. Far from Pollyannaish, he is exploring the boundaries of selfless happiness and its possible rewards. And with Sally Hawkins he's found the perfect actress for a character many will struggle to accept. Unconventionally pretty, Hawkins gives a disarming and unpretentious performance, shading her Poppy's genuine heart with flashes of moral seriousness and empathic pain. At key moments, she makes spontaneous choices that reveal a deep sense of justice, adding unexpected layers to an already fascinating portrait. It's an effort that should be remembered come Oscar time.

If Happy falters, it's that its loose narrative doesn't make much room for middle ground. Poppy is the polar opposite to almost everyone in the film, and while some of her friends appreciate her relaxed grace, they remain uninfected by her transcendent humanism. If Leigh were a little more generous, he might have suggested that, for the cynics among us, there's still hope for growth.

Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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