Sometimes, to tell a story is to hold a mirror up to life: to reflect, and so capture a time and a place and an idea all at once. It’s an awful cliché to state that truth is beauty. But no phrase better encompasses the seminal achievement that is Margaret.
But before I get into that, a caveat. I am 20. Currently I am unemployed, and am a university student. I subsist on a governmental loan and parental handouts. In short, I live in a state of extended adolescence. And yet, I can clearly see adulthood as a looming future possibility, a prospect both desirable and utterly terrifying. Which puts me in a very similar place to Lisa Coen.
Lisa (Anna Paquin) is your average intelligent 17 year old. She is beautiful, passionate and startlingly articulate. She is a woman, with the usual set of desires, and one who is clearly aware of her sexual power. She thinks herself all grown up, but has no real concept of what adulthood means. That is, until she goes out on a shopping trip looking for a cowboy hat. While out in town she catches sight of a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) sporting a particularly awesome cowboy hat and tries to get his attention, so she can find out where he got it. He thinks she is flirting with him, and hell, maybe she is a little. So his attention is distracted. And because of that he runs over a woman, who ends up dying in Lisa’s arms.
Lisa has an adult’s drives, and an adult’s knowledge. Now she has a responsibility only an adult could handle. Unfortunately she has none of an adult’s perspective. Lisa is an earnest young woman. She cares so much, that she twists the world around her into one where she has a personal stake in this tragedy. And thus begins Lisa’s crusade for justice. A child of a director and actress, she is naturally predisposed to theatrics. As such, her involvement in the death of Monica Patterson (Allison Janney) becomes tragic fuel for a dramatic stampede.
This unconscious dramatisation is brilliantly constructed. Lisa’s speech is verbose and articulate to a degree that almost strays beyond believability. I mean, what normal person uses the word ‘strident’ in the midst of an argument? Paquin’s delivery does make it sound naturalistic, but regardless, there is a feeling of preplanning to her speeches, like Lisa is following a script of her own making. Lisa’s behaviour is also melodramatic. She makes brittle confessions of love, yells hotly in her arguments with her mother and classmates, and indulges in sobbing reconciliations. Indeed Paquin displays a mind-boggling range and quality of performance, in being able to convey all of Lisa’s rollercoaster emotions believably. The classical score by Nico Muhly provides the orchestral accompaniment that no high drama could be without, and the moment when I realised the irony inherent in the film’s music was a golden one.
There is a problem however with having a character’s core trait be that they believe themselves the heroine of a drama: after all, in a story, they are. So Margaret takes pains to undercut Lisa’s pretentions. It does this by avoiding seeing the world through Lisa’s eyes. On occasion a scene will begin, and though part of it will involve Lisa, she will be in the background, or included late. Instead of her concerns we are treated to the friendly chat of two old ladies, or the argument of a couple heading out to dinner. It is emphasised that though she might think otherwise, she is not the centre of this world.
And that’s not the end of the film’s worldbuilding effort. I’m not sure that enough praise can be lavished on the character writing and actor direction and acting talent that brings to life the world of Margaret. For this last matter, well, I feel that too many positive adjectives get meaningless after a while. So Jean Smith-Cameron is…wordlessly good as Lisa’s mother Joan. There are so many different facets to the skill of acting that it is probably ridiculous to laud any single ability above another. But what I find really impressive in actors is the ability to wordlessly convey information, and to do it in a fashion that is noticeable without being telegraphed. Well Smith-Cameron can do that. This may sound strange, but I have never before seen an actor express boredom with such perfection.
In addition to this we have the excellent work of Ruffalo and Jeannie Berlin (as Emily, Monica’s best friend) and indeed all the rest of the cast. All of them inhabit deep characters, with personality and problems of their own. Lisa’s visit to bus driver Maretti’s house uncovers a harassed breadwinner, who clearly feels under pressure from his jealously-suspicious wife. An unpleasantly venal cousin of Monica’s, who might, from Lisa’s perspective, have become a villain of the piece is similarly humanised. In her arrival into New York, and, in her tentative attempts at helping a cabbie unload luggage, we see the nervousness of a country woman suddenly surrounded by urban jungle. In that moment we empathise with her. Through touches like these, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan creates a rich, full world that places Lisa’s self-involvement into perspective.
In doing so, he reaches a filmmaking pinnacle. The power of stories comes from how they relate to an audience and I saw so much of myself in Lisa Coen. Not just in the way I too get a wee bit passionate and ranty in political discussions, or in the fact we share a tendency towards quasi-academic pretentiousness. I also recognised the emotions that lie beneath this behaviour, the anger and perversity that overpowers sense. But Margaret’s masterstroke goes one step beyond this. The film sets up a justification for why this behaviour exists. It creates a mental dichotomy, between adults, who see themselves as part of the world, and teenagers, who still see themselves as the focus of the world. And it charts the progression into adulthood as a shift from one mindset to the other.
It’s not an earth-shatteringly novel conclusion to draw, that much of teenage behaviour comes out of an unconscious assumption that the world revolves around them. But that doesn’t matter, because the point is not made didactically. It is not shoved in your face. It is a subtle truth that is left to the audience to realise, and is conveyed all the better because it is done without words.
In short, what lies at Margaret’s core is a beautiful truth. That makes for an amazing movie.
Margaret – Official Trailer – 2011 Published via LongTail.tvPowered by Sidelines