(Note: “Extended Edition” watched for review.)
When I include a prefacing paragraph in a film piece, I do so in an attempt to connect with whatever I’m reviewing. That’s fairly self-evident, but I like to remind myself and others about the joy of art and criticism, which is that we each bring our own lives to a film, and we get to have an experience no one else can. Nothing can never erase or replace our lives prior to a picture, but a good movie can reshape or recolor the way we understand the world–hell, even a bad one can remind us of why we value what we value.
Margaret is a cry for that kind of connection, where even the title is an allusion to another person’s expression and interpretation of their lives. Kenneth Lonergan’s vivid portrait of a young woman coming into her powers as a normal human being strains to find solace in the aftermath of a terrible accident. An overwhelming exploration of guilt, grief, and empathy, Margaret is an epic that is deceptively miniature, anxiously fidgeting and bursting in the hopes of finding relief or resolution where none exists. Famously fraught with years of editing woes, a more complete version of Margaret was assembled and released shortly after the film’s 2011 release. The result is an undeniable and overwhelming demonstration of artistic prowess and compassion of the highest ability.
Watching Margaret, I kept wondering if I’m supposed to like Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin). More than anything, I’m reminded of my worst tendencies when I, too, was a 17-year-old shit that believed that, because I vaguely understood my world, I understood the world; that believed being right was more important than being kind to others, or that didn’t care that my actions had consequences; that believed if I talked long and loudly enough, and used enough $5 words, I could prove how much smarter I was than everyone else around me–and given that I write about movies that interest me for free, one could argue that this latter quality never really went away. Despite this, Paquin has so much integrity, even when Lisa is wrong or in over her head and can’t quite talk her way out of a given situation–which seems to be her permanent state.
Lisa is fairly ordinary that way. Anyone, certainly any teenager, can be mildly rebellious, or talk about global politics from the safety of a class discussion the way Lisa does. Negotiating a grade that was achieved through cheating isn’t hard for her, either. And there’s no question that having an acrimonious relationship with her theatre performer mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), while she adores her absent father (Lonergan). But what if Lisa was confronted with something difficult, like finding a cowboy hat somewhere on the upper west side of Manhattan? Or tepidly staving off the romantic advances of a close friend? Or coping with the shame of causing an accident that leads to the slow, preventable death of a total stranger?
That latter example serves as the film’s inciting incident, and is an unassailable work of storytelling. In an attempt to wave down a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) to ask him where he got his hat, Lisa distracts him, causing the driver to run a red light and run over a pedestrian (Allison Janney). Lonergan tips us off with a shot-reverse-shot back-and-forth between Lisa and the driver that becomes increasingly chaotic, building to a frenzied, inscrutable fallout, as Lisa and various strangers do their best to save the fatally injured woman. The scene is shocking and difficult, as everyone talks over each other, failing to be with each other in the moment.
Margaret deftly captures just how obtrusive the gears and momentum of everyday life are, no matter what a person is going through. Where any other movie would slow down and allow the audience to linger in the pain of their protagonist, Margaret thrusts Lisa into every mundane problem she had before the accident. Lisa doesn’t hide the accident. She does, understandably, obfuscate her role; so, to everyone else, she’s just a girl who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet, Lisa cannot shake the albatross of the episode.
Following the incident, Lisa sees the world in a new light, and Lonergan lets us in on her POV. We hear unrelated conversations from strangers, even when the camera is fixed on Lisa talking to someone else, going so far as to bleed from another room. We’re constantly made aware of the world around her, only to be held at arm’s length, stuck in a post-9/11 New York, where a city first brought together in the face of tragedy is distrustful of one another. The effect is reminiscent of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, where Robert Altman forces characters to compete for the audiences attention against the setting.
Plagued by guilt, Lisa tries to remedy this by getting the driver fired. She levies a suit against the transit company he works for, alongside Emily (Jeannie Berlin)–a close friend of the deceased, whose name we learn is Monica. Lisa also pursues trysts with dopey men that she finds captivating. She even tries to go visit her dad for an extended stay, even when her mother is visibly hurt by the prospect. Lisa tries to move her life along, failing to understand that putting herself in grown-up situations is not the same as knowing how to handle them, and that her actions affect those around her. Emily chides Lisa, saying, “This isn’t an opera. And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life.”
So much of the magic of Paquin’s performance is just how well she taps into how performative Lisa’s maturity is. Again, anyone can argue hypotheticals or morality from afar. But when we see Lisa be confronted with the consequences of her actions, her bluster crumbles. When Lisa confronts the driver, whose name is Gerald Maretti, at his home, unannounced, after going through the trouble of tracking him down with a vague goal in mind, she’s stymied. Part of this is Ruffalo’s performance, which is aggressive–partially because of the intrusion from someone reminding him of what could be the worst day of his life, but also because he’s arguing with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) during his conversation with Lisa–but visibly, reasonably frightened. He’s doing what Lisa does to her mom or classmates: Showing her up verbally to maintain control.
Because Lisa can be so caustic in her every action to the point of alienation, Lonergan sticks us with Joan, whose loneliness and heartbreak are impossibly palpable, as she’s subject to Lisa’s effortless cruelty, and the affable indifference of her suitor Ramon (Jean Reno). Margaret could still be a good, maybe even great, without Joan’s thread, as she spreads herself across her family life, her stage production, and her budding romance, but because Smith-Cameron is there, Margaret is transcendent. Though Paquin is giving a trickier, thankless, arguably better performance, Smith-Cameron, being as effusive and warm as she is, is ultimately more compelling. Though there isn’t a character exchange in Margaret that isn’t watchable or memorable, nor a performance that isn’t totally natural, the interactions between Joan and Lisa are easily the most electrifying. Joan is a comfort that buoys the picture, balancing the cringe-worthy adventures of our primary protagonist with sincere pathos.
Even with the softness of Joan’s story, Margaret belongs to Paquin, and Lisa’s awakening to the futility of closure. There is no plan or control that can perfectly ease Lisa’s suffering, nor undo her complicity in Monica’s horrible death. And for as unflattering as the picture of Lisa that Lonergan paints is, he knows that she’s a child who is trying to do the right thing. Lonergan affords this to everyone. Joan, Emily, Lisa’s classmates. Even clumsy teachers played by Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick–I cannot adequately express just how mind-blowing this cast is, by the way; a pre-Succession Keiran Culkin is here doing a proto-Roman-Roy that is still distinct to this project–are given miniature arcs, usually by way of Lisa being an asshole to them.
Practically every character is a case study unto themselves; that’s how vibrant this film is. Lonergan shows a hyper-awareness we rarely see. This is what is especially bold about Margaret: How much time is spent not totally on Lisa’s side, as we’re constantly thinking about how she bounces off everyone around her. This is amplified by the moral universe of Kenneth Lonergan, which is so messy and gray, which lends apprehension in following Lisa through everything she does. For as hard as Lisa tries to be a good person, she never quite grapples with how her intentions don’t make up for how they affect others, nor how she is only obfuscating for her own inability to truly see what others need over what she thinks she needs.
The way mistakes, particularly grave ones, shape us is something Lonergan would go on to explore more succinctly in Manchester by the Sea, another story about a damaged person haunted by demons that they take responsibility for, but who are never so bad that they aren’t sympathetic. As masterful as Manchester by the Sea is, the ungainly asymmetry of Margaret is, if not less frustrating, a much truer, more rewarding exploration of many of the same themes. I couldn’t say why Lonergan is so preoccupied with some of the darkest recesses of humanity, but practically no one else articulates them as fully as he does, even when his characters can’t.