Shot in 2005 but not released until last year, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret centers on Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a 17-year-old high school girl who lives on the Upper West Side with her little brother and her mother Joan (a poignant J. Smith-Cameron), an actress. At the outset, Lisa is a mildly self-absorbed and seemingly unremarkable girl.
Out shopping for a hat one afternoon, Lisa witnesses — and inadvertently helps cause — a gruesome traffic accident involving a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo). Lonergan plays out the aftermath of the accident in agonizing real time, and it’s the most wrenching scene I’ve seen in a movie in years. Covered in blood, Lisa has to give a statement to the cops. She lies, protecting the bus driver, and keeping her own part in causing the accident out of the official record.
The delayed fallout from the accident will gradually seep into every corner of Lisa’s life. Eventually she becomes convinced that she has to change her statement to the police and get the driver to admit what really happened.
The story of Margaret has a timeless quality — its portrait of a privileged American teenager thrown into a shattering awareness of the wider world, and Paquin’s portrayal of that character, will still ring true and then some decades from now. But a viewer experiencing Margaret in 2012 is aware of how the movie has also just started to become a period piece, however faintly. It may be the definitive take by an American artist on the years following 9/11 in New York City and beyond, in part because it approaches that subject indirectly.
On one level Margaret is a study of a teenage girl as she experiences a crisis and takes up a quixotic mission to right what she perceives as an injustice. “Teenage girl” is generally shorthand in American pop culture for blinkered, unconscious entitlement.
But Lonergan and Paquin’s Lisa Cohen is no stereotypical bratty teen, but rather an exceptionally fair-minded representation of a girl who is, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan, busy being born. In the course of the movie she will be wrested from the unquestioning world of her adolescence into a kind of crucible that may prove pivotal in determining what kind of adult she becomes.
Lonergan and Paquin aren’t out to judge Lisa; they set themselves the more ambitious task of depicting her accurately. And that means showing all of her life — at school, at home, at a party, the better to show how her personality recalibrates depending on where she is and whom she’s talking to. Margaret earns its running time in part because to leave anything out would give us an incomplete and therefore false view of who Lisa is. The viewer gets to see what no one who knows Lisa is allowed to see — all of her life, in all its messy, staggering totality.
There could be a shorter version of this film that focused solely on Lisa as she navigates between school and home. That movie’s most intense moments of drama would be the searing arguments Lisa has with her mother Joan, wherein Anna Paquin displays a gift for tapping into what plays like an unfathomably raw wellspring of emotion. Lonergan’s script calls upon Paquin to lash out or break down many times during the three hours of Margaret, and not only is she compelling each time, she never seems to be repeating herself. Instead we get a sense of Lisa responding guilelessly to each new circumstance — each new blow — just as a real, overwhelmed 17-year-old would.
But the other great achievement of Margaret is that this definitive portrait of a teenage girl is also a panorama taking in nothing less than New York City. Lonergan’s ambitions, and generosity, are apparent early on, in the slow-motion shots of New Yorkers walking the streets that ask the viewer to really look at these people. Crucially, Lisa isn’t even in some of the shots, yet there’s no lessening of the camera’s attentiveness to the people moving through the frame.
Throughout the movie Lonergan comes up with strikingly inventive ways to give us a sense of the city all around Lisa, always pressing in. A beautiful pan high above the streets allows us to look in the windows of several apartments, with the sound mix welling up to give us snippets of what’s going on in each residence, before coming to rest on the Cohens’ apartment and letting us listen in on Lisa’s phone call. The shot is an inspired way of illustrating Lisa’s growing consciousness of the world around her. She is gradually shedding the solipsism of adolescence — and in its place comes a near-hysterical, overwhelming awareness of injustice that’s also characteristic of people her age. (And which can be its own form of narcissism, as one character’s scathing rebuke to Lisa will make clear.)
That shot peering into apartments way above street level is just one instance of the many times that Lonergan chooses to situate his camera high up among the skyscrapers. In the last third of Margaret in particular, cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski captures vistas of tall buildings in autumnal afternoon light, rendering what could be the most impersonal angle on New York City in unexpectedly warm, almost sentimental terms. I loved these shots on a purely formal level alone: I’ve never seen camerawork that captured the sheer verticality of New York City so well.
A few critics have expressed puzzlement at the leisurely shots of Manhattan skyscrapers here, but they’re key to situating Lisa’s drama in a much broader context. Those lingering shots — I’m tempted to call them the Robert Moses–eye view — emphasize that this is a meditation on New York City, particularly the mood there in the years following 9/11. A heated argument between Lisa and a Syrian classmate about 9/11 and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East brings the topic of 9/11 sharply to the surface, but the subject haunts the movie elsewhere. This is a film about violent death and grief and confusion in New York, circa the mid-2000s, that returns to elegiac views of tall buildings again and again; what is a viewer to think?
(There’s one deliberately paced shot where what’s implicit in much of the film becomes almost blunt. The camera dwells on a plane in the distance, and slowly tilts up to follow the plane as it passes between…two towers.)
During the last hour of Margaret, the viewer gets a sense of a film that could go on indefinitely. That’s a testament to how well it captures a sense of life unfolding. But the movie headed toward indefinite sprawl finds its perfect, surprise ending in a scene where mother and grudging daughter attend a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman at the Metropolitan Opera. (Spoiler alert.) Against all expectations, Lisa finds herself overwhelmingly moved by the opera. She breaks down, in an outpouring of emotion that sweeps up her mother as well. In these closing moments, Margaret embodies what it depicts: an unshakeable conviction in the cathartic power of art. If elsewhere in the movie there were moments that left me unsure of whether to laugh or cry, the impact of the final scene left me with no doubt as to how to respond.
Cineaste alert! Make sure you watch the extended cut of Margaret, available only on the DVD. Here’s why.
Who is the “Margaret” in Margaret? Find out here.