Kenneth Lonergan, fifty, has not produced a vast body of work, but three of his plays—This is Our Youth (1996), The Waverly Gallery (1999), and Lobby Hero (2002)—have been nominated for awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote and directed the psychologically incisive brother-sister drama You Can Count on Me (2000), which won a number of writing awards, including the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Screenplay. All of Lonergan’s work is distinguished by pointed, evocative dialogue and intricately layered characters.
Lonergan’s second film, Margaret, was shot in 2005, but because of editing troubles, arguments, and lawsuits with distributors, it didn’t appear on screen until 2011. It finally appeared in a truncated version—cut from its original three-hour version to two-and-a-half—on a few screens and quickly disappeared. Even so, it has received a great deal of deserved critical plaudits, and is worth revisiting now.
I don’t fully know how the cuts affected the quality of the film, but the distributed version, though messy and filled with narrative holes and digressions, is brilliantly written and strikingly acted. The film’s emotional power and intelligence dwarfs most other American films that made it to the screens in 2011. Its characters are more complicated and unpredictable, and the writing is consistently trenchant and revelatory. Lonergan is unwilling to flatten out the hurt, muddle, and missed connections of our daily interactions to make his work more commercially palatable.
Margaret, whose title is taken from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “Spring and Fall,” about a young girl who suddenly perceives aging and death, centers on Lisa Cohen (played by Anna Paquin, in a virtuosic piece of acting), an upper-middle-class adolescent living in New York City’s Upper West Side. She is sharp and arrogant, sexually aggressive yet innocent, self-dramatizing and self-absorbed, and sometimes casually destructive. She unthinkingly toys with a sensitive fellow pupil who is infatuated with her, seduces her somewhat naïve math teacher (played by Matt Damon), and then treats him with contempt when he feels guilty about having sex with her. Lonergan has created in Lisa a difficult and often unsympathetic character.
But Lisa is not without redeeming qualities. We see this seventeen-year-old’s moral seriousness in her decision to take moral responsibility for a tragic, emotionally overwhelming incident. The film’s action is propelled by Lisa’s sense of guilt about a bus accident that causes the horrific death of a pedestrian. The driver, Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), crashed the bus after running a red light while distracted by Lisa waving to him. Lisa tries to console the victim as she bleeds to death in her arms; the experience leads her to an almost all-encompassing need to do what is right, after she initially lied to the police about the cause of the accident.
Lonergan and Paquin don’t hold back for a moment in exposing Lisa’s raw ferocity and mercurial emotional states. It’s an ambitious and risky entry in the coming-of-age genre. Lisa’s psychodrama involves a host of vivid characters, including her divorced Broadway-actress mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), with whom she has a petulant and abrasive relationship. All the characters—many of them played by New York theater veterans—have distinctive personalities. They all add to the novelistic richness of Margaret, which often moves away from the central narrative to give us some sense of the world of privileged urban adolescents and the particularity of Manhattan street life.
Much of the film focuses on her seeking advice from adults who offer little useful guidance. Joan, no tower of emotional strength, is too caught up with a new Broadway role and the beginnings of a romantic relationship to be fully attentive to Lisa. Her father (played by Lonergan himself), a scriptwriter living in Santa Monica, is just a long-distance telephone connection. He makes all the right paternal noises but is enveloped in his own life and emotional difficulties, so he is unable to focus on Lisa’s situation. The detective who handles the case is thoroughly professional but can’t share Lisa’s all-consuming involvement, and tells her that little can be done.
The one person whom Lisa finds a connection of sorts with is the dead woman’s best friend, Emily (a brilliantly prickly and neurotic Jeannie Berlin), a surrogate of a kind for Lisa’s mother. But Lisa soon realizes that though this sometimes harsh and impatient woman may share her interest in punishing the bus driver for the accident, she can’t tolerate Lisa’s emotional arias. In one instance Emily lashes out at her for engaging in theatrical game playing, making the death of her friend all about Lisa’s own guilt and need for closure.
Though Lonergan is a playwright for whom language plays a primary role, he shows great visual flair in depicting the city. He punctuates sequences of charged, sometimes eloquent dialogue with overhead long shots of random buildings, streets, traffic, and people walking in slow motion, providing a meditative pause from the action. One striking wide shot captures Lisa walking on a crowded Upper Broadway being hassled by some boys, and then fading from the frame.
Lisa does eventually leave Manhattan, in order to talk directly to the bus driver about the accident. He lives in an attached red-brick house, American flag in front, in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, near the Verrazano Bridge. Lonergan knows his home city well. He captures the look of lower-middle-class life, the speech patterns of the sullen Maretti (who is frightened of losing his job), and his suspicious wife, who is disturbed by the presence of a sexy teenager. Lonergran can successfully use a few sentences of dialogue to reveal a significant aspect of a character’s personality. Indeed, traveling to Bay Ridge itself comes across as a bold act by Lisa; she heedlessly plunges into situations that would be difficult for most adults to deal with.
Lisa, and Emily decide to pursue the case through a lawsuit, but they never achieve the kind of justice they aim for. (The lawsuit ends up only guaranteeing monetary compensation for a distant relative and leaves the bus driver untouched.) Still, one feels Lisa has done pretty well, and even gained a certain amount of self-awareness, in her awkward, driven quest. The climatic scene, with Lisa and her mother attending the Metropolitan Opera’s production of the Tales Of Hoffman, is overwhelming. They both begin to cry, and join hands. For the moment, despite all the rage and discord between them, their connection has been renewed.
Margaret is flawed. There are too many scenes discussing the lawsuit, some important plot points appear out of nowhere (like one scene where Lisa gets an abortion), and some characters are dropped without much explanation. However, the film is luminous, whatever may have been cut. That Margaret’s form is as chaotic as Lisa’s emotional make-up reinforces the film’s power and originality. It deserves praise for never playing it safe—never making a character a mouthpiece for the director’s point of view, or telling us how to think about any of the characters.
Margaret implicitly suggests that our psychic lives are too volatile to follow a clear line, that characters can’t be reduced to a few adjectives or formulaic notions of good and evil, compassion and selfishness, courage and cowardice, and repression and expressiveness. Lisa defies quick understanding, but she feels alive. Every scene in the film resonates as emotionally true. Lonergan may be a relative novice as a film director, but like Bergman, Buñuel, and Cassavetes, he knows that high art, at its best, subverts the ground of our psychological or political being. Margaret is a film that makes no attempt to soothe its audience, instead forcing it to look at people and the world from a different perspective.
Leonard Quart is the coauthor of American Film and Society Since 1945 and a contributing editor at Cineaste.