Thursday, March 15, 2012

Margaret: Digging Deeper into the Movie of the Moment

Posted By on Thu, Mar 15, 2012 at 9:00 AM

You're going to hear a lot of heated discussion in The Belcourt's lobby this weekend. For one week only, starting Friday, the theater is opening Margaret, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's sprawling drama about a high-school student (Anna Paquin) sorting through the convoluted aftermath of a fatal accident on a Manhattan city street.

Co-starring Mark Ruffalo, J. Smith-Cameron, Jeannie Berlin, and a huge supporting cast that includes Matt Damon and Allison Janney, it's a movie that almost never played Nashville: its release was held up for six years, and when it finally came out, it was largely dismissed and dropped after a handful of playdates. But a rescue campaign mounted on the movie's behalf led to its placement on many year-end Top 10 lists as critics across the country got a chance to see it.

Quite simply, it's an amazing movie — messy by design, but so thoroughly alive in every shaggy, rancorous, life-affirming moment that it leaves you desperate to talk about what you've just seen. In keeping with its discursive, digressive spirit, we've provided some food for post-film discussion below that didn't fit this week's review in the Scene's dead-tree edition.

Don't read the stray thoughts below until you've seen the movie, as major spoilers follow. But see the movie. Then let's talk.


It's difficult to encapsulate the relationship between Lisa (Paquin) and Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) — what do you call it when a daughter steals money from her mother's secret hiding place, but also makes a point of finding out where that is? Lisa's relationship with her father Karl is a little more diagnosable — a distant dad (played by Lonergan himself) whom divorce, a career, and a new wife have settled on the other side of the country. He is the only man in the film that Lisa doesn't immediately take a confrontational tone with. He likes to throw money around, using an upcoming trip as both a motivator and a weapon, but he's got an easy, literate charm — you can see what Joan might have seen in him, as well as what eventually drove her away. Karl projects the illusion of practicality and pragmatism, but he's still the one voice that Lisa can't find the right words to truly dialogue with.


If there's a physical embodiment to the film's emotional relativity, it's Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.). Kind and mild-mannered, he exists to show a differing emotional ideology than the other students we see- when he approaches Lisa to ask for a date, his acceptance of his own doubt is anathema to how we see everyone else in the film behave — he rejects the inflexible certainty that drives the rest of the cast. He also gives us, with one brief scene of isolated weeping, the other side of Lisa's mission to rid herself of her virginity.

That scene as a whole does Catherine Breillat's A Ma Soeur (Fat Girl) proud, viewing virginity as a hindrance, something to be exorcised. Lisa even evinces shame of her own sexual organs, prefering to tend to her lover Paul (Kieran Culkin, here looking like a dead ringer for Murfreesboro music icon Jonathon Gower from Japanese Cowboys), who sums the whole experience up by saying "the odds are overwhelming that it'll be okay." It is mirrored by another sex scene that is notable for its own elision. When Lisa meets with her math teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon), we see an attempted seduction that immediately cuts to a discussion of sexual improprieties.

But as viewers, our uncertainties throw that balance off. Reading the script (made available online by the film's distributor) tells us that there was in fact a sexual encounter, but its specific absence mitigates its impact on our perceptions of Damon and Paquin's characters, and it also makes even more awkward and weird the film's grand 'Howcomezit?' moment when Lisa tells Mr. Aaron and another colleague that she'd recently has an abortion. That moment alone requires a thorough viewer to watch the film again, because even a generous approach to the layout of the film needs a way to reconcile how that moment fits into the weird, grand sprawl of Margaret.


It's only after meeting Emily (after her awkward conversation with Abigail in Arizona, truly the most cluelessly loathsome character in the film) that Lisa begins to reconnect with her feelings from Monica's accident. Now that she has an additional connection, she finds the world of grief as someplace new and vivid. She's experimenting with drugs and casual sex, but the drugs are the least of her problems, because she's found a strange new high in being right and railing against a system that seems unfair and callous. "This is how our society punishes people for doing bad things," the lawyer Mitchell explains, meaning assigning a dollar amount for the insurance companies to agree on. And the thing about the dawning realizations that befall Lisa throughout the film is this- the impenetrable and privileged idealism she's been drawing strength from is absolutely right. But it still won't change anything.

That's the nature of adulthood. "You care more easily," Emily tells her, laying out the long and the short of the emotional world of adulthood with the directness that in the end feels like one of the saving graces of humanity. There's an earlier moment in the film, foreshadowing this brutal and necessary realignment of perspective, and it comes during a class discussion of King Lear. The teacher, played by Matthew Broderick, is trying to get across the cruel uncertainties of the divine (or fate, if you prefer), when suddenly the other students offer a perspective on the material that derails his whole program. Petulantly sipping his juicebox, Broderick aims to shut the whole discussion down, but the moment sticks in the gullet — when it comes to emotional interaction, there are no absolutes. And Broderick is troubled, as we all are in the long run. We almost don't even need the previous class scene devoted to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that gives the film its title, but it does make for a hell of a thesis statement.


Joan and Maretti use almost the exact same phraseology when talking to Lisa about family and obligation; is this a case of our hearing things from Lisa's perspective, or more how society is conditioned to value those with family above others? Ruffalo's Maretti is almost too much of a signifier — he's introduced as the bearer of a cowboy hat, a symbol of an America that never existed (a point picked up on in the first classroom discussion scene). His adamancy in his one dialogue scene makes sense in light of the legal backstory of the character, and he even manages to echo the horror of the widespread sexual abuse cover up in the Catholic Church. But he becomes a means to an end in the film, and that's determining what a human life is worth.


The image of Lisa, returning home after the accident covered in Monica's blood, is haunting. It also points out an aspect of New York life that doesn't often get picked up on (unless when mocked or held up as an example of moral decay) — you can walk through the streets of New York covered in blood, and provided you don't ask for help or freak out, people assume your are handling your own business and give you the space to do so. That sounds like a libertarian streak to me, which contrasts nicely and quietly with the mass gathering around Monica's accident where everyone feels obligated to do something, even if only to stand around and weep.

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