“It is the blight man was born for. It is Margaret that you mourn for.” – from “Margaret, Are You Grieving,” a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins
“Margaret,” the sophomore effort from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, is a film about New York, a city with 8 million stories. So it is only fitting that “Margaret” arrived on DVD last week with a story of its own. Filmed in 2006, “Margaret” has been in litigation over its running time ever since. Lonergan was given “final cut” by the studio, but when he turned in a nearly 3-hour long film, Fox Searchlight refused to release it. After five years and many twists and turns (including one version edited by Martin Scorsese), the studio finally gave the new, shortened cut a limited release without any marketing, and virtually no one saw it. It finally arrived on DVD earlier this month.
The film is worth the wait – it is a compelling, sometimes messy tapestry of the anxieties and moral quandaries that define a generation. Anna Paquin plays Lisa, a narcissistic 17-year-old (but I repeat myself), who witnesses a horrific accident. In an early scene, a woman is hit by a bus and dies in her arms. It is a heart-stopping scene, and neither Lisa nor we ever recover from it. The tension from that early scene carries us throughout Lisa’s journey, and we end up seeking resolution together. She is convinced that she and the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) are to blame – she was trying to get the bus driver’s attention at the time – but she lied about it in the police report. Lisa navigates her way through the justice system, trying to correct that lie. Meanwhile, her guilt threatens to poison and consume her.
Paquin, who is in nearly every scene, gives an arresting performance. Other characters, including her teachers played by Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick, only drift in and out of her life, and as a result, of the film. Part of this is by design; Lisa’s narcissism is her defining characteristic, and, as she is told by another character in the film, she only sees other people as characters in her own drama. This dynamic is exposed in her broken relationships with her parents, who are divorced and live on separate coasts. She bickers viciously with her mother, an actress absorbed in her new play, and cannot seem to connect with her father (played with subtle detachment by Lonergan himself). While these supporting characters are intentionally underwritten, I also can’t help but wonder if they were given more to do in the original, longer cut of the film. As it stands, the film ends with several subplots left up in the air. It makes for a disjointed viewing experience at times, as we are consistently reminded of the film’s multiple rounds of editing.
Still, “Margaret” largely succeeds due to its strong concept and execution by Lonergan. Far more ambitious than his debut film, the excellent “You Can Count on Me,” “Margaret” weaves a unique and personal story of grief into a more general coming-of-age plot. Lisa argues with her mother and younger brother, drifts in and out of friendships, and experiments with sex – all common, relatable elements of the life of a teenager. But the film also references global political events and intimates that her trauma represents the greater trauma of her generation, who have grown up in a post-9/11 world that robbed them of their innocence too early. Lonergan includes in the film heated classroom arguments about American attitudes towards Muslims and several dream-like shots of planes flying low over the city. In this way, “Margaret” portrays America in the post-9/11 era as a nation stuck between two eras, struggling to find its moral identity.
Despite the fact that it is clear Lonergan intended “Margaret” to be released closer to the events of 9/11, in some ways it is appropriate that it took this long. Several films this year have addressed themes of inter-generational resentment being expressed in our political and cultural institutions, including “The Hunger Games,” “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and “Cabin in the Woods.” “Margaret” does not approach its subject with the same scale as those blockbusters, but it reaches far deeper. While those studio films successfully reflect the mistrust of authority and loss of innocence in our current cultural identity, “Margaret” looks inside of it and finds a basic yet uncannily accurate representation of it: a confused, self-centered American teenager. In just his second film, Lonergan aims to define an era and a generation. Despite corporate intrusions, obstructions, and delays, he still gets pretty damn close.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue