Especially with the scene where they’ve gone clubbing and they’re being silly having had a few drinks, you could be forgiven for thinking at that point, “Can I actually spend a couple of hours with this person?” —Mike Leigh on Happy-Go-Lucky

So is Poppy the schoolteacher in Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky a character or a thesis? In an interview with the Guardian last spring, the irascible Brit pretty well opted for the former:

I said that this is going to be a vivacious, positive, intelligent, bright woman with a great sense of humor and buzzing with energy, and the film really needs to take its cue from that.

Which in fact it does do, and yet the question lingers—not whether Poppy is a “good thing” or that more of us “ought to be like her,” like the unsinkable Molly Brown or Doris Day out on a Beverly Hills lark, but whether anyone so eerily … excuse me, “sunnily” predisposed is even motivationally credible. Because if we assume we’re all necessarily the sum of influences and forces and psychological vectors that go into making up our character, like an intractable physics problem that theoretically has a solution but practically speaking doesn’t, then how to account for Poppy’s existence at all? What’s she missing that the rest of us unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) aren’t and how does she manage to escape the twin curses of self-knowledge and critical awareness? (Which Leigh maintains she doesn’t, but let’s continue anyway … ) Because the “optimism,” if that’s what it is, seems very much a cultivated product, not anything inborn, the result of a more or less intentional screening out. “Reality, can’t have any of that,” Poppy says at one point in a bookstall, which I’d say definitively lets the cat out of the bag.

But for Leigh there’s nothing at all wrong with this—and in a sense, dramatically, he’s right. Because the character’s more a “what if” provocation than anything realistically conceived—like, how far do we follow out this thesis of human interaction before it becomes utterly absurd? A problem we know from Strindberg, where the not quite subliminal dominance-submission battles between Poppy and driving instructor Scott ultimately find their source. Light against darkness, Rousseau contra Hobbes: so which one of you theoreticals is gonna yell “uncle” first? 

Not that I’m objecting—I’d call it a damn good show.