Home Video Hovel: Margaret
When reflecting on Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, the word that most readily comes to mind is “messy.” On closer inspection, though, that term doesn’t really apply at all. Sure, the film is 2 ½ hours long in its theatrical cut and fervently resists any direct narrative through-line. Still, it possesses a great deal of focus, or focuses. They simply exist in a number of different directions.
Anna Paquin plays Lisa, a Manhattan teen who lives with her brother and her divorced mother and who attends a private high school. One afternoon, she is witness to a horrific traffic accident that throws her emotional life into disarray because she was distracting the bus driver involved at the time.
We only spend a little time with Lisa before the inciting incident but it’s enough to know that, while she is likely above average in her intelligence, she is essentially like other people her age. She often behaves as if she has everything figured out (an arrogant confidence comes through in an early conference with a teacher). At the same time, she seems to be making it up her personality as she goes along (she thinks she’ll buy a cowboy hat for an upcoming horseback riding trip with her father). People Lisa’s age display a pretty fluid identity. That’s because they still have years to gain some semblance of an idea of who they are. What happens to Lisa, however, changes that. She suddenly has to confront questions about the world and her place in it that she might not have had to answer for years, if ever.
Compare Lisa to her mother, for instance. A successful Broadway actor, she naturally takes on a less than solid personhood. She adapts to situations without committing to them. It’s her job. She’s a good mother but, of all the people Lisa tells about the accident, she seems least able to help. Over the course of the run time, Lisa and her mother will often argue with each other when together and, when separated, they are occasionally both involved in rituals of courtship. Neither is at ease in such situations. Lisa’s mother is not much more grown up than Lisa.
Setting the film in New York City is a deliberate and fitting choice on Lonergan’s part. Margaret was shot back in 2005 and written, one would assume, even earlier. The story of a young woman dealing with an emotional trauma calls to mind that of a young nation recuperating from a devastating attack only a few years before not far from where Lisa lives.
Given such weighty themes, it should be no surprise that Margaret has a hugeness to it despite its personal and intimate focus. It’s not just those massive themes that make it feel big. The cast seem to understand that they’re a part of a major work and plays at that level (plus there’s a whole lot of yelling at each other for them to do). Lonergan also employs bombastic and portentous music in the film’s score, girding up an aesthetic that is otherwise little more than a delivery system for screenplay and performances.
It doesn’t all work all the time, though. With this many characters and subplots, it only makes sense that some should be given short shrift, such at Matt Damon’s teacher. Perhaps these problems will be fixed in the longer cut available on the Blu-ray release.
Kenneth Lonergan has fought for years to get this movie to you. Yet I’m almost surprised that the movie didn’t appear in theaters immediately after its completion through sheer force of will. It’s that urgent and powerful a piece of work. I may have only seen the theatrical cut but Margaret is a film with enough to say to be hours longer. I would gladly watch them.