Two movies were released at the end of 2011 that had big name actors in secondary roles but were mainly about adolescents struggling with tragedies. Both were based in New York City and had the specter of September 11, 2001, hanging all around them. They both were directed by men with pedigrees for art house dramas and whose previous films had been collectively nominated for nineteen Oscars. One was Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Close & Incredibly Loud with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock and the other was Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret with Matt Damon and Anna Paquin. The latter presented a troubled teenager who is intelligent, real, and unlikable; the former presented a pre-teen who treated grief like a puzzle. The former was shown in 2,600 theaters for three months and was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Picture. The latter finished in the running for a glut of critics awards and ended up on more than fifty top ten lists despite having been shown in only fourteen theaters for four weeks.
The story of the production of Margaret is a long and complicated one. Lonergan, who took two years to write the script for what would be the follow-up project of his highly praised You Can Count On Me (2000), started filming in 2005. The release date kept getting pushed further and further back as the studio, Fox Searchlight, insisted on cutting as much of Lonergan’s three-hour movie as they could, and Lonergan insisted that it stay the way it was. After a number of lawsuits, what we have now is a two-and-a-half hour movie that is awkwardly edited in places. Whether or not the movie would be improved with the additional half-hour, I don’t know. There’s a tendency to side with the artist against the suits on this kind of thing, but while watching Margaret, I never got the feeling that its myriad problems would be solved by it being longer. Of course, I haven’t seen the version Lonergan intended, so how can I say?
Ruminating on what I actually saw, it’s clear that Margaret is one of the most ambitious movies of 2011, eclipsed only in that department by The Tree of Life. Also released by Searchlight, that movie played in about 210 more theaters than Margaret and subsequently made its money back, if only barely (to put some perspective on the number of theaters, I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone that fourteen theaters is a terribly small number. A movie like the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises will open in close to 5,000 theaters across the country). Margaret was surpassed in intelligence by only Certified Copy and stands alone of 2011’s offerings as the best acted movie of the year.
That Fox Searchlight would rather just swallow the $14 million it took to make Margaret by not giving it a chance seems curious to me, especially considering they had a sure money maker still left to release (The Descendants), but any speculation on their decision-making process is just that, speculation. It is hard to imagine that the two-and-a-half hour Margaret, which is often very difficult to watch and seems purposely unenjoyable, would become a hit, so it’s perhaps just as well.
Furthermore, gone are the days in which movies are lost forever and we simply get to dream about how great Stroheim’s complete Greed (1924) was or what a coup Welles’ uncut The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) would be. Movie lovers had to wait eighty years to see the original Metropolis (1927), but to see Margaret I had to wait a number of months for a DVD. Fox Searchlight’s crime of withholding it from us is hardly gratuitous.
Margaret is about Lisa (Paquin), a privileged Manhattan teen who feels neglected by her actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron). She is very smart but not so good at math, and when she’s caught red-handed cheating on an exam in that class, she gets away with little more than a light admonishment from the teacher (Damon), who would rather seem understanding and cool than dole out discipline. While shopping for a cowboy hat to wear on a horseback riding adventure with her father (Lonergan), who lives in Los Angeles, she notices a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) is wearing one. She tries to ask him where he got it, but the bus is already on its way. As she runs after it, she distracts the driver, who runs a red light and hits a woman (Alison Janney). Lisa runs to the scene and holds the woman just long enough before she dies to learn that she has a daughter named Lisa. When the police interview Lisa, she sees the concerned look on the driver’s face and decides to lie and tell the cops the light was green. Eventually, she is wracked with guilt about the part she played in the tragedy and is less comforted when she seeks out the driver, who doesn’t remember Lisa’s involvement at all and seems to believe the light was green to begin with. Incensed, Lisa begins a legal crusade specifically against the driver, hoping that her guilt will diminish if somebody is held responsible.
Lonergan introduces secondary and tertiary characters including a theater and opera lover who pursues Lisa’s mother (Jean Reno), the bus accident victim’s best friend who aids Lisa on her legal quest (Jeannie Berlin), a lawyer (Michael Ealy), additional teachers (Matthew Broderick and Rosemarie DeWitt) and suitors for Lisa to make confused mistakes with (Kieran Culkin, Cyrus Hernstadt). Lonergan does an excellent job of juggling these different characters and isn’t afraid to take long diversions; each character gives us more information about Lisa’s life and her relationships, and each actor, even if given a little bit of screen play, accomplishes his or her goal. Lonergan’s wonderful ear as a writer is here, taking the typical self-importance of intelligent youth and adding to it a prep-school vocabulary. One of the biggest explosions in the movie comes after the insult of “strident.” However, he can’t keep the project from getting bloated, which it eventually does.
In fact, the movie makes many missteps as it goes along. It starts its story as a purely cinematic endeavor and gradually makes the narrative more and more operatic. What begins as a story of subtexts, hidden meanings and portentous glances becomes a collection of scenes with shouting, overtly stating what characters mean, throwing champagne in faces and other theatrics. I think this is deliberate; there are two scenes in the Metropolitan Opera House and one character tells another, “Your life is not an opera!” while acting quite the diva herself, but a little bit of that goes a long way and it undercuts some of the realism the first half of the movie builds. The movie wants to be about behavior and morality, in the vein of Kieslowski, and for nearly two hours it does resemble an episode of The Decalogue (1989), but Kieslowski would never devolved into the posturing dramatics that bedevil the final act of Margaret.
In many ways it reminded me of Mike Nichols’ Closer (2004), a movie I bring around quite a bit as an example of an unpleasant experience. So many people in Margaret are mean to each other for no other reason than they can be that it becomes depressing, but it avoids Closer’s purposelessness. The movie is always engrossing. Lonergan’s dialogue is better when it’s explaining how things work, as it does often during the legal sections of the movie, than when it gives characters self-important speeches about how they work.
Regardless, it remains a near perfect document of the privileged American teenager, perhaps the most self-important being on the planet. Paquin gives a decidedly unappealing but powerful performance as the haughty Lisa, who is annoyed by everything her mother says, has everything figured out but really knows nothing at all. I’m not sure that the movie is arguing that letting the driver go unpunished is the moral thing to do, but it’s certainly arguing that Lisa’s vendetta is little more than the scorn of an reactionary, spoiled and practically idle class trying to comfort itself with money in the vague name of justice. More pessimistic still, Lonergan doesn’t have much respect for the adults who are complicit in, if not the model for, this type of behavior. Everyone is looking for someone to blame, everyone is looking to be the center of attention, everyone is competing to be the one who hurts the most. A classroom discussion is farcically held on the subject of whether teenagers should rule the world, but in Margaret’s world, they already do, with Lisa at the middle of it.
The screenplay gives Lisa a decidedly quirky vocabulary and pattern of speech, one that would be endearingly used in 2007’s Juno, but here it makes the pious Lisa insufferable. Twice she blurts out well-worded but matter-of-fact questions that are designed to shock. The first is an invitation for sex, which gets a laugh because we are accustomed to movie teens making love with each other but the second demands a gasp, as we recognize the real consequences such casual growing up can bring.
Margaret may have too much going on. It may not as clearly say what it wants to. But it gives the feeling of teenage angst accurately. It’s not a hopeful film, but I don’t think it hates Lisa, who, like many teenagers, simply decides to hide her redeeming qualities. I wonder what Lisa will think about this episode in her life ten years from now. Will she retain her self-righteous indignation? Will she forget about the ordeal entirely? Or will she feel intense shame for behaving so destructively? The beautiful last scene in the opera house, as the tough and immovable Lisa is brought to tears by an inconsequential moment in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, might give an answer. It certainly speaks volumes to the volatility and delicacy of youth. Margaret is a remarkable picture.