Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan (screenplay)
Starring: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo and Jeannie Berlin
Margaret has one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. In the aftermath of a horrendous bus accident, the young protagonist Lisa (Anna Paquin) rushes to the side of Monica (Allison Janney), the woman who was hit. Her legs remain under the bus, and as the camera cuts to her she calls out for her daughter, and asks if she’s dead. She also can’t see.
This scene is so acutely observed and acted that it burns into the memory. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan pulls no fancy technical punches in moments like this. There are plenty of theatrical moments in Margaret, though, and not all of them took place in front of the camera.
The six-year battle Lonergan went through with Fox Searchlight over the final cut of his film would surely be more interesting if it weren’t so uncompromising and powerful. It is the story of a privileged Manhattan girl dealing with trauma and loss, and the movie challenges us at almost every turn to both recoil from and then look closer at her.
There are several moments where Lisa is seen at a distance by the camera, slowed down to a crawl while she walks down a crowded New York street or in wide shot as she sits among her fellow students in the rambunctious and lively classroom discussions. Although she is the center of her own universe, Margaret insists on forcing her into context with the bigger picture. Paquin gives the best performance of her career here, though; Lisa is a mess of contradictions but still achingly, sympathetically human. Her attempts to sue the bus company and get the driver (Mark Ruffalo) fired after the accident are selfish, but Lonergan paints a broader picture of insecurity and confusion around her that renders her more adolescent than sinister.
Margaret’s legal woes with the studio had largely to do with it trying to be so many things at once. It was conceived and filmed in an America on the rebound from 9/11. Its statements about Lisa’s class guilt (the reason she lies to the police to protect the bus driver) resonate more in today’s “One Percent” headlines and the Occupy protests. In a key scene in the last third of the movie, her theatricality is lambasted by Monica’s friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin), who Lisa has persuaded to help sue the bus company. She calls Lisa out for treating her and everyone else like supporting characters in her own drama.
The in-joke, of course, is that this drama is centered on Lisa. In the end, it isn’t chiefly about trauma or white collar angst but performance and boundary pushing. She pushes everything as far as it will go in the aftermath of the accident- melodramatic confrontations with her actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron), calling up a boy from school to deflower her, sleeping with her teacher (Matt Damon).
Lisa is bursting with anger and guilt, unsure of where or how to direct it. Lonergan films this chaos with a mix of in-the-moment realism and observant theatricality. His camera looks up at the skyline and slows pedestrians to the crawl of the background music, but it also gives the performers their close-ups.
Though Paquin steals the show, the rest of the cast is all terrific. Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno and Matthew Broderick are all big names edited into the periphery here, with the lesser-known if still fully capable other names taking center stage. The rest of the characters, except for maybe Lisa’s mother, separate the world from that of drama, and see consequences as very tangible, harmful things.
Life is a stage of a different kind in this film, though. Lisa is a self-centered child, and Lonergan’s goal is to contradict her volcanic personality by editing the world around her, and not vice versa. In a recent article in The AV Club, Mike D’Angelo focuses in on a scene that many other critics discarded, the one with a debate between a male student and an English teacher (Broderick) over King Lear.
“When analyzing the film as a conventional narrative about a bus accident and its aftermath, this heated argument seems strangely irrelevant,” he wrote. “But when talented artists include something that seems mundane yet inexplicable, it deserves a very close look, as it’s virtually always not merely crucial, but intended as a sort of Rosetta Stone.”
In this scene Lisa is a bystander. She is not the focus as she is in so much of the rest of the movie and in her own life. This is what makes Margaret the messy masterpiece that it is; Lonergan’s camera shows us a young woman coming to the realization that the entire Earth is orbiting the sun, not just her. By the time the movie finishes (in an opera house, where else?), Lisa has grown a little, but also kept many things stubbornly the same. She is a young, ignorant girl with a big vocabulary.