Margaret (2011, Kenneth Lonergan)


There’s a moment in this film when Emily (Jeannie Berlin) tells the lead character and audience vessel Lisa (Anna Paquin): “This isn’t an opera! We are not all the supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life.” Sometimes it can seem like a film was practically written for you, or at least was cosmically programmed to reach you at the perfect time; this bit of dialogue poked me squarely in the face, the same way Hushpuppy’s lecture from her mother connected with eerie directness to so many people who saw Beasts of the Southern Wild. In a heavy film designed to provoke deep self-examination, this sobering remark and the diatribe and argument that follow will affect the viewer in one of two ways, which will likely determine how strongly said viewer responds to Margaret overall. Either you cheer Emily’s remarks and adore seeing Lisa brought down to earth, in which case spending nearly three hours with the adolescent character is probably not for you, or you are driven to wake up from this signal that so many of us, like Lisa, are adrift in our self-absorption without even realizing it, in our inescapable framing of everything as being part of our story — despite what can be overwhelmingly good intentions. Yet because you comprehend that worldview and her reaction so precisely, you’re overcome with profound sympathy for her. Because there’s a good chance she’s you when you were a teenager. Actually, if you’re anything like writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, there’s a chance you still are: an ever-crusading perpetual adolescent confused about the world and doing your best to handle it.

Margaret is about lots of things; its world is densely layered and full of threads, some more complete than others, but what it so deftly captures like no film since Rebel without a Cause is the impossibly frustrating feeling of being a teenager, realizing with the harshest kind of epiphany the largeness of the world swirling around you, and in turn how those emotional peaks and valleys we’d so love to forget as grownups draw a direct line to the adults we become. Many worlds away from the John Hughes perception of adolescence, however valid, Lonergan’s script is careful and detailed and dangerously close to flawless as a character exercise. Lisa’s good-hearted attempts to grow and enlighten herself and to alter the past and future both have an ache to them that manifests in a few moments of time-stopping intensity. “I killed her!” she screams at one point; she’s both right and wrong, and our hearts pound for her lost feeling. Such identification will be so fierce for some viewers that the movie will be difficult to watch; others will sit wondering how or why anyone could care about such a self-obsessed character, conveniently forgetting what their own childhoods were like and in turn neglecting the film’s operative word: empathy.

Empathy is the great untapped resource of our time; we just witnessed how a man thoroughly lacking in this basic human element can come within a hair of the U.S. presidency. The specific kind of empathy Lonergan practices here means to bank on recognition, as well as on a specific connection he knows he’ll only forge with a certain segment of his audience. The movie’s long and sprawling and ambitious; it’s not really a teen film or a comedy, though it’s largely about teenagers and is witty enough, but it has that unmistakable sense of understanding like the best and least condescending pop music, a paragon of respite within youth culture that tends to regard its consumers as pieces of disposable dirt. That willingness to take emotions, and emotional outbursts, seriously is something that will permanently mark Margaret as an unusual film, which is scary — we don’t realize how afraid we are of such bare and unadorned displays until something like this points up our discomfort with them.

I was a wreck by the end of Margaret — I’m not fond of making broad statements about how this or that has affected me more than anything else in a long time, though I do fall into the habit, but the truth is that this movie hit me cold in an unusual, deeply rooted manner. I screened the theatrical version; if, as reported, the complete director’s cut is even better, I believe this may be a masterpiece and could well eclipse Melancholia and Beasts as the best new film I saw this year. [See addendum below.] But enough about me. I believe that there’s something bold and blisteringly honest happening here; when the director openly admits that he was attracted to the subject matter because he himself feels like a teenage girl much of the time, I believe it’s a signal that there is no block or hindrance to the compassion exhibited here — no heightened irony or distortion. Artful though it is, and as “big” as it feels, its examination of a young woman’s inner world is harrowingly complete.

The broad plot and structure of Margaret bear some explaining but are tough to articulate. Putting it very simply, Lisa is a complex, smart and conflicted girl — in other words, an average American teen — whose boisterous interactions with her insular conception of Manhattan are disrupted permanently when she accidentally distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), causing him to hit and kill a woman, Monica (Allison Janney), whose excruciatingly detailed onscreen death is a quick and early signal that this film does not intend to mince words with its themes. Monica dies with Lisa holding her hand and the remainder of the film chronicles a life led with a new consciousness of matters and details in play that she never before considered, and of course also a looming mortality that her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) comes to know as well in a second protracted tragedy. Much of the runtime homes in on an attempt to sue the bus driver for the wrongful death, a matter with which Lisa gradually becomes obsessed. All the while, the day-to-day matters of school and growing up and a disconnection from her family pile on. No pat answers or resolutions are provided; what we’re given instead is that which William Wyler once gave us in The Best Years of Our Lives and Dodsworth: as Jonathan Rosenbaum put it, a sense of bearing witness.

Perversely, by bearing down on Lisa’s conflicted heart and the perceptive way that, like so many teenagers, she embraces her own duplicity and is uniquely vulnerable to the disappointments we as adults know well, the film tackles a heavier scope of problems and storytelling possibilities than so many WASP Problem movies that sprawl with disparate characters — while using the character’s wide-eyed perspective to point up the systematic failures of institutions meant to serve us. The film’s cyclical nature, questioning yet validating every human action or sympathetic sentiment, is a gradual revelation that leads to a gigantic unveiling of its own sense of perverse, flawed beauty. The buildup of pathos has reached such a pitch by Margaret‘s hard-earned climactic moments that the ultimate release of catharsis in its disarmingly moving final scene that we genuinely seem to share in its cry out of pain and understanding, a cry of both anguish and relief. There’s no dialogue, but the cumulative effect of everything the two participating characters have been through — within a refreshingly realistic, unsentimental mother-daughter relationship — is finally too much. As Lisa herself has remained our achingly clear vessel throughout, and with the constant revisits to the mood of post-9/11 NYC (read: America), we recognize that we are meant to let go and wail out as well. It’s profoundly comforting, on top of everything else. There’s so much to talk about here and it will take time to parse it all out.

Margaret was shot in 2005 and intended for release the following year, one reason it captures the mood of the Bush-era U.S. so clearly; it’s off-putting but fascinating to be confronted with a new film in which Paquin and several peers — Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin and Mark Ruffalo in minor but pivotal roles — already look so young and encased in another period. Years from now, of course, that won’t make any difference; we’ll just see how brilliant Paquin is, sophisticated and angry and lively, bursting with energy, and how well she’s matched by Smith-Cameron as Lisa’s actress mother, Jean Reno as the latter’s ill-fated boyfriend, Janney in her brief but haunting moment. And we’ll note how the conversations are tied into a specific moment in time — it’s striking how much the national dialogue has already changed — but could be shorthand for any of the debates and concerns and lingering questions that would roll around in the head of a 17 year-old.

Lonergan’s messy, brilliant, beautiful film was woefully mistreated by Fox Searchlight. A controversy over final cut left the film shelved for years with lawsuits filed and at least three different edits in existence, one of them prepared by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. This theatrical cut is a compromise, with the longer version available on DVD, and not to make this completely an essay about Future Generations, but Fox is going to look back years from now with deep regret about the way they handled this film, which I can nearly guarantee will be seen as one of the classics and seminal films of its era — at least by those of us who lose ourselves in introspection and want to do better for the people and world around us but can never properly get a handle on how. Maybe that’s a majority of us and maybe it isn’t, but I know it’s me. To put it as melodramatically but sincerely as Lisa probably would: I love this movie like it’s a part of me.


[Addendum (Oct. 2013): I watched the extended version of Margaret on DVD some months after posting this review. It reinforces my feelings about the picture on the whole, and I would easily call it the preferred version now, but its additions do not have a significant effect on the feeling and final cumulative impact of the film, with the exception of a major plot point in the last thirty minutes that was excised in the theatrical film. The material that seemed slightly extraneous the first time around — mostly involving Matt Damon as a hunky geometry teacher — still is, and even some of the better sequences that are restored don’t have much narrative consequence. Lonergan is right to posit that both versions of the film have their advantages and disadvantages, but I believe that the opera score and unusual sound design in the three-hour cut, which enhance the flavor of the film considerably, give it the edge. Unfortunately the longer version is only available as a standard-definition DVD.]

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