Margaret is, in some ways, a love letter to everyday NYC. The environment writer/director Kenneth Lonergan brought to life onscreen is the New York City I remember from when I lived there. No matter how private your life is, how personal the moment, you will always be surrounded by people. Someone will always see you. Whether or not they choose to be that witness is another story.
Lisa Cohen is a high school student wise beyond her years. In many way, she still acts like a child who wants everything she wants and doesn’t take no for an answer. Yet her ability to conduct herself as an adult and demand respect is unparalleled by anyone else in her life. That is until she plays a key role in the death of a pedestrian in a terrible bus accident. Lisa chooses to see what she wants to see during her fleeting relationship with a cowboy hat wearing bus driver and chooses to lie to the police about what really happened.
For the next two hours and ten minutes, Lisa grapples with the choice she made. Lonergan brings in a bunch of superfluous details–her mother is starting a new relationship, her teachers are growing frustrated with her know it all attitude, she’s embracing the male gaze as a sign of power–but the driving force is the accident. Her memory and choices overtake every aspect of her life until they become the only thing she lives for.
Margaret is a difficult film to watch. The main plot is engaging, but every diversion Lonergan throws in makes it that much harder to follow the story. Everything comes back to Lisa because Lisa is the center of her own universe. She is a self-centered teen who loves hyperbole and relishes every opportunity to throw out a big word and put someone down for not being as smart as her.
What makes the film as watchable as it is in its bloated and meandering flesh is the cast. Anna Paquin is electric as Lisa Cohen. She looks older than a high school student in the classroom scenes, but place her against any adult and she looks like she’s barely thirteen. It’s a brilliant casting choice and Lonergan does everything he can to play up this disparity to isolate Paquin’s performance from everyone else in the film. With the exception of one very emotional scene (she loses the American accent when she’s on the verge of tears), it’s as close to flawless as you can get as an actor.
J. Smith-Cameron, as Lisa’s physically absent but emotionally engaged mother, is pitch perfect in her performance. She has the worst plots thrown at her–the opening of her Broadway show, especially is a distraction that could have been shown once or twice and established the point–yet manages to trick you into thinking every moment she has is important. I’d gladly watch the Joan Cohen feature film from Kenneth Lonergan; I just wish it wasn’t part of Margaret.
Then there’s the wide ensemble with only a few scenes to their names. Allison Janney plays the victim in the bus accident and she should have been nominated for every award during the 2011 film season. What she does with one short scene is what acting is all about. Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon play two of Lisa’s who coddle her a bit too much because of her intellect. The arcs they create with only a handful of scenes do more to define the growth of Lisa Cohen than anything Lisa Cohen does on her own. Kieran Culkin and John Gallagher Jr. (Tony winner, Spring Awakening) play the only friends Lisa has in her age group and find authentic moments in some absurd scenes.
But herein lies the problem with Margaret. All the individual elements–the actors, the design, the editing, the sound, the self-contained scenes–are excellent. They just don’t all add up to much of anything at all. There is a point about 90 minutes into the film where, if the story just stopped, it would be a brilliant film. Lonergan has established all the key story points and put these characters on very clear paths to their destinies. Instead of allowing the audience to define the experience, Lonergan stubbornly ties up every plot point with a big scene regardless of the impact on the overall story.
I want to say all the film needed was some judicious editing, but that’s a big aspect of the production that cannot be ignored. Margaret was shot in 2005. From there, a wide variety of reports have come out all claiming to explain why it took the film until 2010 to be complete. The most pervasive rumor is that Lonergan demanded perfection in the editing room, but his desired three hour cut of the film was not acceptable to the distributor. He had to knock at least thirty minutes out of a film with a 168 page shooting script. That’s a significant change.
So, if this is the carefully edited, screen tested, satisfy the distributors edit of the film, how do you reconcile the odd diversions within the tighter focus? I think the problem comes from having to spend too much time with the story. To Lonergan, what he kept in is essential to his vision of Margaret. To a film audience that doesn’t know what the full version of the story is–how he actually intended to tell it–it feels a bit misguided.
I liked what I saw. I just wish that Lisa’s story was the clear focus the whole way through. That’s what I wanted to witness.
Thoughts on Margaret? I’d actually love to see Lonergan adapt this for the stage. I think a nice three act structure and the constraints of a physical set could do wonders to bring this story alive. The one drawback would be the cast size. If you move everything indoors, you don’t need the constant flow of traffic to create NYC. You’re still dealing with full classrooms of active participants and all the friends, relatives, and players in the accident that drives the narrative. I’d be interested in seeing how that could come together.
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