Margaret (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Margaret (2011)

There’s one good scene in Margaret, unfortunately it comes right at the end.  Lisa (Anna Paquin) has been struggling with a lawsuit stemming she helped start after trying to move on from a death she helped contribute to.  She and her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) sit together at an opera and Lisa begins to cry.  The singers voices seem to be competing with each other, but eventually find a loud harmony, and Lisa collapses into her mom.

The optimist in me would like to think that Lisa finally figured it out.  She understands that it is not about who can be louder but finding a pitch where everything sounds beautiful.  The pessimist in me thinks that she hasn’t grown up more during that show than the last traumatic moments of her life.  In this scenario Lisa realizes that no matter how loud she makes her own voice it will become symbolically distinctive from another.

The scene can be read in these two distinctive ways, undoubtedly many more, and relies on the opera and Paquin’s sobbing for the soundtrack.  Loneliness creeps into both the mom and daughter as they try to enjoy something they both admitted earlier makes them feel isolated in watching.  It’s a lovely moment, and also the only time a truly divisive reading could be read into this heavy-handed moral tale of teenage privilege.

Whenever Lonergan utilizes the opportunity to tell his story in visuals he jumps to the most direct possible metaphors.

Margaret is a film that screams for all the liberal arts in the world to rouse to its light and give it a heavy clap on the shoulder.  It’s filled with Shakespeare, opera, drugs, art, open political discourse, all those wonderful things free spirits with money seem to like in movies.  On the surface it seems to be the story of a girl who learns that life isn’t all about her.  But despite the frequent attempts of many characters to tell her existence doesn’t revolve around her every step, the movie makes damn certain she is a driving force behind everyone’s actions in the film.

Lisa is the rich daughter of an actress who decides at the wrong time to flirt with a bus driver and causes an accident.  He’s at fault, she also has some of the blame, and it seems her little me-driven world will shatter when the victim dies in her arms.  Then instead of changing or having a crisis she acts like just about any other teenager in the world and makes everything about her.

What, precisely, is the dramatic purpose of something tragic if nothing of consequence comes from it?  Yes, we get the teary montage of Lisa cleaning the poor woman’s blood off of her, but she goes right back into her world like nothing happened.  Before the accident she seemed careening into a world of experimentation, badly planned encounters with men, and typical teenage feuding with her mother.  Yet – nothing.  Not a blessed thing really changes for her.  I can’t even claim it’s straining for “what is the meaning of it all?” considering its many different answers to the question.  It’s just a bad event in an unremarkable life.

Matt Damon is one of many talents Lonergan doesn't quite know to use in the story.

The film is moored in this sense of, and I can’t believe I’m finally using this world, banal place setting.  We’re not supposed to congratulate or demean the political duels in the classroom, the kid in the corner who stands up to the teacher, or when Lisa finally decides it’s time to “lose it” (though I strongly question Lonergan’s decision to linger over a woman playing a 16 year old).  But they arrive without consequence and leave much the same way, with none having any effect on the other, and only that final shot carrying any weight.

Lonergan is not a cinematic giant.  He came from a world of playwriting and it shows with the grand conversational gestures regarding politics and art in the classroom but fails to stick any landing.  He is still capable of moments worthy of a cold chuckly, like when Lisa asks her proud teacher “Wouldn’t you say you’ve reached the summit of your lifelong ambitions?”  However, he seems content to have all of his characters speak in the same grand eloquence (save for an excellently nervy Mark Ruffalo as the driver).  His directorial style is heavy on slow montages of the city set to pianos along with the occasional direct visual metaphor for events that happen not seconds before.

I’ll admit, it’s going to be hard to judge this drama since I only yesterday watched the best film I’ve seen this year, but Kenneth Lonergan supposedly did that before with You Can Count on Me.  That film had characters who felt, cried, and bled for each other.  I’m not in rapturous love with that movie but at least it showed some pretense of structure and direction.

A teenager sobbing because the world doesn’t revolve around her?  That’s not fiction disguised as beautiful truth, that’s just boring old truth.

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Margaret (2011)

Written and directed by Kenneth Longergan.
Starring Anna Paquin.

Posted by Andrew

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