Thursday, October 13, 2011

Everybody Hurts: MARGARET

Update: I had the good fortune of catching the movie in theaters a second time, solidifying my growing suspicion it's a masterpiece. I think my thoughts here are even better at expressing it.
In the same loose gasp of Margaret’s two-and-a-half hour run time is a jumble of themes and scenes and a deeply affecting, bogglingly complex picture of human emotion and moral quandaries. It’s a film that feels sifted, chopped, and cajoled into being. It's a powerful, sweeping yet intimate collection of moments that build towards a powerful, unexpected climax: a thorough evocation of its difficult characters living lives in a recognizable world. It’s rich and thought provoking.

The film is a quintessential sophomore effort, bigger in ambition, weightier in scope, risking a mess. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, after the 2000 release of his terrific, small-scale debut You Can Count on Me, filmed this new film six years ago, in the fall of 2005. Since then, the film has been wrangled around in post-production with artistic perfectionism under a cloud of unhelpful lawsuits and countersuits between the studio and financiers, conflict between the director and the editors, and even the deaths of two of the producers. Getting the film finished at all with so much strife puts Lonergan on a short list with Terrence Malick and Terry Gilliam of great directors who work with a potent mix of genius, patience, and bad luck.

With the film’s background out of the way, I’m eager to turn to the film itself. Margaret is about Lisa, a teenage girl (Anna Paquin) who is startlingly, frustratingly real. Her moods swing wildly. She can be pleasant and flirty and then all of a sudden become a snapping vindictive twerp. She’s just a kid, one capable of great precociousness and blind to the overwhelming extent of her own naïveté. Living in relative privilege with her stage actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and her little brother (Cyrus Hernstadt) in New York City, she has little practical reason to involve herself in anything but the constructed conflict that arises out of the typical teen problems.

She fights with her family. She’s attracted to two of her peers (John Gallagher Jr. and Kieran Culkin) and can’t quite sort out her feelings. One of her teachers (Matt Damon) has caught her cheating on her geometry tests. Another, her English teacher (Matthew Broderick), strikes her as kind of dorky, yet his readings of poetic language are sometimes moving in a way she can’t find words to express. These are all common enough adolescent problems, sources of angst that fade with maturity and age. She’s still in the midst of sorting out competing impulses and emotions. Then, one day while wandering the streets of the city in search of a cowboy hat to buy, she catches the eye of a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) as he pulls away from the curb. He’s wearing a cowboy hat. She tries to run after the bus, hoping to get the chance to ask him where he bought his hat. In this brief moment of distraction, the bus hits a pedestrian (Allison Janney).

Lisa feels responsible for the accident and lies to the police to protect the driver. But then, the memory of the incident eats away at her. She’s deeply affected, rattled, disturbed and distressed. And yet the world moves on. Her mother finds a new boyfriend (Jean Reno, with a bit of an odd note performance for this film). Her teachers keep teaching. Her friends (Olivia Thirlby and Sarah Steele) keep chattering. The boys are still interested in her. The world keeps spinning. And yet how can it keep spinning when she has been in the middle of such a traumatic incident, an out-of-the-blue moment of violence for which her sense of culpability is eating her alive, is churning her emotions, won’t let her rest easy? So she lashes out. (Several scenes in the film draw out a post-9/11 parallel with some potency.) She snaps at her mother. She cancels a trip to visit her father. She takes steps to contact the family of the woman hit by the bus and finds a strange sense of comfort in connecting with a woman (Jeannie Berlin) who was a friend of the victim. Lisa selfishly convinces her to sue, to keep the pain of the moment alive in the courts and hanging over the driver’s head.

Though the plot is driven to a certain extent by the actions and emotions of Paquin, the film doesn’t rely for its impact on her alone. The supporting characters are so fully, tenderly realized with nuanced performances that weave into the frazzled fabric that they feel to be as startlingly, frustratingly real as the teenage girl they all come into contact with. Gallagher’s lovesick teen, Damon’s caring teacher, Ruffalo’s casually troubled bus driver, Culkin’s lothario, Janney’s dying woman and Berlin’s mourning friend all are so beautifully acted and wonderfully played that they add up to an ensemble of depth and interest. “We aren’t just supporting players in your life!” Berlin shouts at Paquin in one particularly sharp encounter. Though they are technically the film’s supporting cast, they’re so well drawn that they hardly feel ignored.

Out of the cast, J. Smith-Cameron stands out. As the mother, Smith-Cameron exudes thwarted warmth, a caring compassion that is ineffective and unreceived by the adolescent angst to which it is directed. She makes her living embodying emotions of characters, yet she finds herself frustrated by the difficulties of “playing” the mother. In a terrific scene, she argues with her daughter, devolving into a great mimic of her behavior. She plays the part, but she has no reference for her own identity. She'll be there for her daughter whenever her daughter rediscovers the need for maternal comfort. This is an example of the film’s beneficial looseness and choppiness. A character of great depth and thematic importance seems to float in and out of focus, ultimately useful, but not always clear.

Lonergan’s Margaret is a film of big ideas and broad scope, juggling dozens of characters and themes around the central girl’s dilemma. It features a prominent quote from George Bernard Shaw, tossed off and referenced casually, but it illuminates what themes the film is playing with. The full quote, from his 1903 play Man and Superman, is one character’s condemnation of another’s “regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in, [which] occasionally leads you to think about your own confounded principles when you should be thinking about other people’s necessities.” This is a film about just that. Growing up is hard to do. Learning how to interact with others is complicated. Dealing with sudden violence, especially when one feels guilt, is messy. Margaret is a sprawling evocation of this hard, complicated mess. 

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