The Human Condition: Margaret

FILM, Film Festivals
At the World Cinema Showcase, Kenneth Lonergan’s all-too-human drama, a film as mercurial as it is masterful.

Margaret is the most ambitious movie I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s also the biggest mess I’ve seen in the longest time. And yet, somehow the mess doesn’t compromise what is a stunning contemporary drama; it only contributes to its all-too-human tapestry. The film is Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed feature debut, You Can Count On Me (2000), a heartfelt character study about the tenuous relationship between adult siblings. Filmed in 2005, and caught in troubled post-production limbo until its perfunctory release in the USA last year, the work that we’re left with is not without its scars—but it’s still an incredible, distinctive piece of filmmaking.

Our main character is Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a self-absorbed, self-righteous high school senior who lives on the Upper West Side; an otherwise conventional teenage girl who rebels against her actress mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), and who engages in awkward pleasantries with a classmate all the while being infatuated with another boy and her geometry teacher too. Her average life is turned upside down when she witnesses a bus run over a woman—an accident that she may have played an inadvertent part in—and she goes on a warpath for justice.

From that plot synopsis, Margaret suggests a procedural or a courtroom drama. It is neither of these, thankfully. The film is less interested in the result of Lisa’s rampage than it is in her interior life, her own personal struggles with the tragedy, and her personal involvement with it. It’s also fascinated by the constellation of characters that surrounds her, from her mother, to her teachers, to the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo).

The one constant amongst all of this is New York. The city plays a huge role; it’s in the background of every scene, and Lonergan’s elegant scene transitions bring it to the foreground. Similar to its presence in a Woody Allen film, New York becomes a character in itself: a place where an enormous spectrum of people from different cultural, political, and moral backgrounds are thrown against each other over and over again. The shadow of 9/11 also looms large over the film, not only visually—like in a gorgeous shot of Lisa walking slowly towards us amidst a crowd of faceless people, only for the camera to slowly pan up towards a skyline where the Twin Towers should be—but in certain passages as explicit text. There are scenes where Lisa’s class is seen arguing about the treatment of Arabs post-9/11 in the way that teenagers argue about things—talking over each other, so sure of their own opinions—and it’s here where Margaret gets the most upfront about what it’s really saying: people make a tragedy personal in order to deal with it and engage it on a level that they understand.

Margaret also succeeds as a beautiful, detailed portrait of a teenager dealing with a tragedy the only way she knows how: by seeking to do what is right, there has to be somebody to blame and punish. To that end, Margaret gives us the most legitimate portrayal of a teenager in recent memory. It perfectly encapsulates how pretentiously hyper-articulate they can be, how precisely predetermined their speaking and word choices often are (there’s a quite hilarious scene late in the film where Lisa uses a word without realising what it actually means and severely angers another character), and how they come to every thought like they’re the first one who thought of it. It also reveals how a teenager relates to those around them, with a slight sense of superiority, as if they haven’t yet realised they aren’t the centre of the world.

Much of this authenticity can be attributed to Lonergan’s script, which has a very specific rhythm that is bracing at first but soon sounds organic and pleasing to the ear. A considerable part of it though comes from Anna Paquin’s towering performance. She hasn’t had a genuine chance to shine since The Piano, and the talent she showed in that film bursts through here, in particular her gift for making stylised dialogue sound completely natural, as well as her jarring physicality. Paquin captures everything about the character and projects all of the awkwardness and insecurity while totally getting her capacity for manipulation and self-righteousness. Lisa’s a conundrum of a character: angry, hateful, and unlikeable on one hand, but believably troubled and self-doubting on the other. Undoubtedly the glue that keeps Margaret together, it’s the best performance of Paquin’s career, and I hope she’s able to build on this to roles that are if not better, then at least equal to this.

The rest of the cast is impressive too, from a slimy but well-meaning Jean Reno as Joan’s new beau, to a searing Jeannie Berlin as the dead woman’s best friend: world-weary but still able to get fired up, enough to catch a glimpse of how she was once a Lisa in her youth. J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan’s wife, is a standout as Joan: equally as monstrous in her own way as Lisa when they go toe-to-toe, and yet also just as sympathetic when she walks on stage in a play she clearly doesn’t care about but desperately wants people to like. Even in smaller roles, actors like John Gallagher Jr. as a boy that is in love with Lisa, and Allison Janney as the bus accident victim in one amazing, chilling scene, are compelling. It’s a credit to not only the cast but to Lonergan. Every character is grounded in their own struggles and demons, and the film makes them all feel like more than just part of the puzzle that is Lisa’s life, but living, breathing creatures.

If Margaret sounds like a mess of a thing, it’s because it is. It doesn’t always cohere, scenes appear to end and begin at seemingly random points, and there are a few of gaps in the plot that are ironically created by sequences that could’ve been cut—such as a subplot with Lisa’s teacher, played by a winning Matt Damon. It’s definitely not perfect; but a perfectly formed film was never what Margaret set out to be. It wants to be too many things and sprawls in too many different directions to be neat and tidy, and I think it’s better for it. It is Lonergan’s genuine care for the characters that overrides the film’s flaws; it’s more concerned with being human than it is with being easy, and I’ll take a human film over an easy one any day.

I’ve spilled a lot of ink over Margaret, and it still feels like I’ve said nothing at all. There are so many layers to Lonergan’s film: it’s about post-9/11 guilt, the human response to tragedy, a teenager coming into her own as an adult, the psychology of justice, the personal need to blame, and much more that I haven’t even touched on and couldn’t possibly in a review of this sort. I can say that I’ve never seen a film like Margaret, so full of ambition and so unconcerned with tempering itself. It confirms Lonergan as not only an important voice, but also a necessary one; a voice that understands and is willing to critique the ways we think or act and how we justify both of these things. It’s to his credit that Margaret is about all these things and more but triumphs as a singularly affecting work of art—in the end, becoming just as vital to cinema as Lonergan has become himself.

The World Cinema Showcase 2012 graces the following cities this autumn: Auckland, Rialto Newmarket/Bridgeway Cinemas, March 29-April 11; Wellington, Paramount, April 5-22; Dunedin, Regent Theatre, April 19-May 2; Christchurch, Hollywood Cinema, April 26-May 9. Full programme and schedule details at