I remember watching the Oscars last year and being really confused about the nomination for best actress for a movie called Happy-Go-Lucky that I'd never even heard of. Put it on my mental to-rent list, but very low down as the clip they showed during the Academy Awards looked kind of… well. Stupid? But when this past weekend found me in the video store - and I'm still wondering when the vernacular is going to change to DVD store - wandering among the aisles, not able to find anything I recognized or was in the mood for, I saw it and thought Mike Field Leigh, British, why not…

Happy-Go-Lucky is the story of Poppy, a primary school teacher somewhere in England (I'm a bit vague on the geographical details - the accent was familiar, but I was too busy focusing on other things too pinpoint it). It's not one of those stories where something big happens, instead a sort of snapshot of a couple of months in Poppy’s life.

Poppy is a happy woman, able to see the fun in most situations and I'll be honest, initially the woman got on my nerves. Well, for more than initially because 40 minutes into the movie, I put it on pause to write the following: "this movie is supposed to be an 'invitation to find joy and grace in everyday moments' (so says Entertainment Weekly), but really, 40 minutes in, all I wanted to do was strangle the giggling idiot. Seriously, the woman seems not to be quite sane.”

I'm a big fan of joy and grace, I'm a tremendous fan of laughing as much as possible and finding the humor in pretty much everything but this one? Batty, a bit touched, a few biscuits short of a tin and I could go on. Only my insane need to complete what I've started and a brief scene in a white Poppy teaches her class and seems good at it made me go back and… I'm glad I did. It turns out you need that first part where you just see the giggly bits in order to get to know her and that's exactly what you do. Like every time you get to know a new person, you first see the surface and the depths later and it turns out that I ended up liking Poppy quite a bit. Sure, she laughs her way through life, but she is far from superficial – she thinks deeply, is genuinely nice and actually really smart. Sally Hawkins as Poppy gives an excellent performance, slowly showing us all the facets of the character.

Like other Mike Leigh films I've seen, although Happy-Go-Lucky has a main character, the movie is more of an ensemble piece and as we go along, we meet the people in Poppy's life. Unique characters all, they may not occupy much time on screen, but the actors manage to leave an indelible impression of a real, three-dimensional person. Poppy’s friend and roommate Zoe really stood out, having some fantastic one-liners and Poppy’s pregnant younger sister has what could best be described as a cameo, yet is not only a complete person, but in those moments that she and Poppy share the screen, you see who they are as sisters and as family. However, it is Eddie Marsan as Scott, Poppy’s driving teacher who stands out among the cast of actors who all stand out. Working a hostile slowburn, Scott is angry at the world and everyone in it. Like the other characters in the movie, slowly peels off layer after layer and as he and Poppy provoke each other to what's worst about each, Marsan reveals a deeply sad, yet frightening man with unbelievable skill.

One of my favorite movies is Vera Drake. I've only seen it once, but it made an incredible impression on me. Also directed by Mike Leigh, it showcases character actors who do not seem like they are acting, but not in that "really good actor acting" way, more like the people portraying the family in the movie really were family, sharing an easy communication that just doesn't happen unless you know someone really well. I later found out that Mike Leigh had the cast eat dinner together for several weeks before filming started and as in Happy-Go-Lucky, encouraged actors to adlib and improvise the characters as they felt right and the result in both movies is spectacular. Watching really good actors become the character is a treat and I highly recommend both movies.

Just be prepared to want to smack Poppy for a bit in the beginning.