One of the most curious and difficult things about growing up just may be the collision of reality and preconceived notions. Our worldview is shaped by our experiences as children, from the education we receive, to the friends we keep, to the way we are treated by others. These things form the way we see the world, or, more importantly, the way we want to see the world. As we grow older and enter the proverbial “real world,” these views we’ve shaped growing up clash with the views the rest of the world operates under. This is at the heart of writer and director Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film, Margaret.
Starring Anna Paquin as a young woman named Lisa Cohen, Margaret is about the collision of Lisa’s young ideology of the world and the world as it really is. Lisa is a college student who lives with her mother and younger brother in New York. Lisa goes to school downtown and is a normal part of the hustle and bustle of a city that never sleeps. She is at school partially because of a scholarship and partially because of her seemingly rich father, who is divorced from Lisa’s mom and lives in southern California. Lisa has friends and, like most people in their early twenties, is experiencing aspects of dating that are entirely new. Most importantly, Lisa has opinions, and a very firm idea of what she believes the world is about and exactly how it operates. One day while shopping for a hat, Lisa is drawn to that of a bus driver, and in an attempt to ask him about the hat, inadvertently causes an accident in which a woman is hit by the bus while crossing the street.
As the woman who is hit lies dying, Lisa consoles her. The moment is abrupt and brutal. The tone of the film suddenly shifts without changing direction—a feat the director and the film’s editors, including the likes of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, are owed much credit for. Lisa is then left with the aftereffects of such an ordeal to process. As one life ends, Lisa’s life goes on, and in so doing becomes a search and a struggle for a notion of what life may or may not be all about. In an attempt to discern this newly-found uncertainty, Lisa searches for a way to take responsibility for the guilt she harbors over the accident, which manifests itself in an effort to bring consequences down upon the bus driver, Maretti (Mark Ruffalo).
Lisa is a complex character in many regards, and as such is a difficult character to ever fully like. Her opinions are arrogant and misconceived at times; she is very conceited about her view on life and her social station amongst her peers. At times, Lisa is an almost downright despicable person when it comes to her actions towards others. As the film begins, we simply follow Lisa from house to classroom to hanging out with friends, and along the way we learn about Lisa’s firm grasp on what she feels is reality. After the tragic accident, we play witness to the way her ideologies clash with the order of the society she lives in. This clash is harsh; Lisa does not have an easy go of things for herself, but what’s most interesting is the fact that these clashes are of Lisa’s doing. Her views and opinions are what cause her hardships as she ventures forth into an existence that’s more fragile and yet bureaucratic than what she believed.
Many scenes in the film take place in Lisa’s classes, where we see her concepts of the world in contrast to her classmates and even her teachers. Several of the film’s most telling scenes take place as one of her teachers, John (Matthew Broderick), is teaching Shakespeare’s King Lear. John reads a passage and the class then discusses how the things King Lear was saying were not in alignment with what it is believed that Shakespeare himself held truth to. It is a moment of acknowledgement that an author’s characters are not necessarily a mouthpiece for the author’s direct opinions. Lisa may be a character of lesser admirable qualities, but that’s the point; it is an interesting and daring thing for a storyteller to do. Most times, a main character is the conduit for the audience to experience the story through—a person whose place we can put ourselves in to share an experience that is not uniquely ours. When the main character is contradictory to empathy and no longer acts as a conduit, they become a portrait—something to observe, like a specimen, or study.
Anna Paquin is perhaps at her best in the role of Lisa, varying between sympathetic and despicable with such ease that while we may at times hate Lisa’s behavior, we are never pushed too far away from empathizing with a person growing up who believes they are doing their best. Lisa’s mom, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), cross-cuts Lisa’s story and follows her as a stage actress in New York who meets a foreign man, Ramon (Jean Reno). By adding this parallel story of Joan, the movie becomes more of a cinematic novel, which is where the problems come into play. As beautiful of a film as Margaret is, it also feels like a film that’s unsure sometimes of exactly how it wants to get to the finishing point where it knows it needs to go. Originally filmed in 2005, the movie met difficulties in post-production when Kenneth Lonergan failed to turn in an edit for the film that was an appropriate length. It then went on to meet legal opposition for a few years until through some extra financing Lonergan was able to finish the edit of the film with the help of Scorsese and Schoonmaker. Unfortunately, this result is felt at times in the film’s latter half.
Lonergan is a gifted filmmaker, with a great sense of character and dialogue. He knows exactly what a scene needs to draw the most from all the film’s elements; giving the actors enough space with longer, steady cuts, he interweaves interesting and yet mundane shots of the environment the characters inhabit (in this case, New York City). The score is simple and beautiful, accentuating acoustic strings, and plays to an aspect of melodrama that is complimentary to Lisa’s view of her life—which, as another character points out, is that of an opera. Featuring a great supporting cast, which also includes Matt Damon as one of Lisa’s teachers, Margaret is an interesting, different, and special film to behold. It confronts emotions and ideas of life that most stories sugar coat and dance around. It’s unabashedly honest, which can be uncomfortable to some, but despite its extensive running time (150 minutes), it, like any great film, is a ride as well as a growing experience.
Margaret begins a one-week run at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown today.
Final Grade: A