By Don Simpson | July 7, 2012
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo, Jeannie Berlin, Jean Reno, Sarah Steele, John Gallagher Jr., Cyrus Hernstadt, Allison Janney, Kieran Culkin, Matt Damon, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Broderick, Olivia Thirlby, Kenneth Lonergan, Brittany Underwood, Michael Ealy
Poor Lisa (Anna Paquin). Poor, poor, Lisa. Everyone is against her; heck, the entire world is against her. This the life of a 17-year-old (played by a 23-year old, but more about that later) — the life of almost every 17-year-old, singing the sad old refrain, “nobody likes me, everybody hates me; guess I’ll go eat worms; long, thin, slimy ones; short, fat, juicy ones; itsy, bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms.” Well, not literally.
If you are reading this, my guess is that you have either been a teenager or you are currently a teenager. (I apologize to the pre-teens in our audience.) Either way, you should know what it is like being a teenager. It ain’t easy, especially when you are talking about precocious, hyper-articulate, smart-beyond-their-years teenagers, such as Lisa. Lisa is self-absorbed and naively cocky; she thinks that she has it all figured out, though it is difficult to determine if she really knows how sexy she is. Most importantly, Lisa is overly idealistic and thinks that she is better than everyone else — especially the adults — around her. Adding to her holier than thou attitude, Lisa is an affluent uptown Manhattan teen who studies at private school and this only adds to her sense of entitlement.
On its surface, Margaret is about Lisa’s reaction to a tragedy. It is a tragedy that she played a significant role in; though not purposefully, the tragedy is at least partially her fault. The question is, how will Lisa respond to this event, specifically with the possible repercussions? Lisa halfheartedly attempts to discuss the event with various adults, but she ends up dealing with a dramatic experience alone. Lisa slowly develops a martyr complex, blaming her entire predicament on the stupidity and ignorance of adults.
Margaret spends a great deal of time contemplating communication breakdowns. Conversations constantly evolve into arguments and whoever talks the loudest “wins.” Characters are always misunderstanding each other, as everyone is seemingly unable to adequately convey their thoughts, opinions and problems. People talk without listening. It is quite purposeful that one of the oft repeated lines of dialogue in Margaret is “let me finish what I am saying.”
The inability to communicate creates an air of detachment among the characters. All of the relationships are riddled by distance and frigidity. There is an inherent lack of interest in or consideration for other people’s problems and concerns, because each character’s own life is way more important than everyone else’s. This is perfectly epitomized by characters (mainly teenagers) smoking in other people’s living spaces, as if it is their right to emit toxic chemicals wherever they want. Margaret is told from Lisa’s perspective, so everyone is literally a supporting character in her life. Sometimes someone tries to interfere with her life, other times she attempts to interfere in someone else’s life. This seems to be the only way that characters try to make connections, by infringing upon other people. (Jean Reno’s bumbling character, Ramon, does exactly this.) Everyone is so wrapped up in their own personal freedom, that they have become unable to relate to other people. The inhumane frigidity of relationships is showcased brilliantly when Lisa chooses the mate with whom she wants to lose her virginity.
Margaret also discusses the way our society punishes people — suing for punitive damages being the worst punishment of them all (other than death, of course). Characters appear to be naturally selfish, unable to admit their own guilt, but they are always willing to blame others. Humans are immoral, pure and simple.
All the while, humans are quite mortal — and no matter how much they try to fight it, their lives will remain completely out of their control. Teenagers tend to lack the life experience to truly get this, causing them to over-dramatize and over-react to life-altering situations. Thus a recurring theme is that “life is not an opera.” Lisa’s mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), is a Broadway actor from whom Lisa has presumably inherited her less-likable drama-queen qualities.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan originally shot Margaret back in 2005. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were still fresh in the minds of New Yorkers (and Americans in general) and Margaret functions as a brilliantly shrouded metaphor of a post-9/11 world raft with trauma, rage, and blame. All the while, the Bush administration was still in complete denial of any mistakes or wrongdoings having to do with their response to that tragedy in the Middle East. Not only does Lisa channel George W. Bush’s obscene lack of communication and relationship skills, but she embodies his self-righteous and foolishly vindictive attitude in the years following the World Trade Center attacks. First and foremost, though, Lisa shares Bush’s warped notion of justice. (This explains Lisa’s ridiculously immature desire to become a cowboy, or at least own a cowboy hat and pretend to be a cowboy.)
Margaret is a near-perfect film, one that works well on multiple levels with clever metaphors that delve deep into dense socio-political commentaries without ever becoming heavy-handed. Unfortunately, Margaret is also hindered by numerous structural problems. The editing is incredibly choppy and the narrative is awkwardly paced. This can be chalked up to Lonergan’s original edit clocking in at around four hours, quite an ambitious length for one of the most harrowing dramatic films of last decade. Heck, an emotional fortitude of cold hard steel is required to endure the relentlessly dire tone of the two-and-a-half hour theatrical cut. Fox’s Blu-ray combo pack will include the theatrical cut plus a bonus DVD featuring a never-released three hour version of the film; as much as I love Margaret, I am absolutely certain that my tear ducts cannot handle an additional 30-minutes of emotional devastation.
While Anna Paquin’s performance as Lisa is mind-blowing to say the least, it is a bit disconcerting and distracting to see a 22-year-old actor alongside a high school class comprised of noticeably younger actors. Paquin looks like a young woman and her classmates look like kids. I suspect that this was done on purpose. First, because it would have been difficult to find a 17-year-old actor in 2005 that could handle this material with Paquin’s unfathomable emotional depth. Secondly, the casting creates a sharp visual contrast, literally disassociating Lisa from her peers. Thirdly, this is exactly how Lisa sees herself, matured far beyond the years of her classmates; she views herself as a 20-something stuck in a 17-year-old’s world.
To my knowledge, none of the characters in Margaret are actually named Margaret. The film’s title comes from the subject of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Spring and Fall”, which is recited in the film. Close examination of the poem reveals yet another layer of meaning within Lonergan’s film. It is Margaret we mourn for.