City Symphony
Justin Stewart on Margaret

Pretty much everything I’ve read about Margaret, positive or negative, is true. Whatever you throw at it sticks. It’s messy, overlong, a triumph, a failure, a 9/11 allegory, really about New York City, a sophomore slump, a bigger-thinking sophomore success, personal, universal, boring, hypnotic, a victim of writer/director overindulgence, a victim of dastardly producer meddling, bad, great. Oxymoronic might be the only word that finally fits. The film’s unwieldiness and difficult-to-pinpoint (though clearly large) ambitions preclude wholly coherent reactions and opinions. I may be apologizing for my own inability to unlock Margaret, but ambivalence might be the only rational response. I choose to fall back on that most slept-in of critical feather beds, proclaiming the film’s flaws one with its virtues, its messiness another facet of its genreless singularity—a messiness that is, moreover, entirely true to its inconstant, hormonal, passionate, educated teenage protagonist, as well as its setting.

The New York Times Magazine did no one any favors when it titled a June 2012 piece about Margaret’s epic postproduction travails “Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece.” That article shortly preceded the American DVD and Blu-ray release of the director’s cut (as an extra), 179 minutes to the cinematic version’s 150. The Times title is reckless with that mostly meaningless m-word, raising unrealistic expectations and unthinkingly siding against its “thwarters.” The accompanying photo shows a windblown Lonergan in earth tones frowning and looking tragically thwarted. (Additionally, the first sentence—“Think back to the last time you saw Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 film, You Can Count on Me”—is ickily presumptuous about its target Sunday Magazine readership's uniform viewing tastes.)

Margaret was filmed in 2006 and only finally given a small theatrical release in 2011, after editing help from supporters Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, and well since the deaths of two of its producers, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack. An outspoken and impassioned rallying on the internet (#teammargaret) helped spur the mini-release. The Times article puts some of the blame for the delay on Lonergan’s stubbornness and working habits, but most on the interference of co-producer Gary Gilbert. The existence of a DVD package featuring two versions is as happy an ending as the saga’s going to get, though the lawsuits and ordeal might’ve scared the playwright and theater director Lonergan away from movies for good. (The following paragraphs here refer to the director’s cut.)

Even while I worry about Lonergan's cinematic prospects, his film makes me optimistic about the state of the medium. I picked it for this symposium not because I foresee a litter of other Margarets in the future, but because of the happy fact of its existence. Because a high-ambition, personal oddball like this can still happen within a big American studio division like Fox Searchlight, and, even when frustrated in postproduction stasis, can eventually be induced into release by a vocal groundswell of support.

The onscreen plot is less convoluted than the twisting-turning production follies might suggest. A high school Manhattanite named Lisa (Anna Paquin) witnesses a bus crash that occurs after she distracts the driver (Mark Ruffalo), causing him to run a red light and fatally strike a pedestrian—a middle-aged woman named Monica (Allison Janney). Lisa tries to contain her own hysteria as she consoles the dying woman while holding her hand. Monica mistakes Lisa for her own dead daughter, with whom she shares a first name; a crucial misunderstanding that carries waves of significance for our Lisa. Later, while making eye contact with the driver, she tells a cop at the scene that the light was green, a decision she will eventually doubt and double back on, leading to the legal entanglements and settlement dealings that make up much of the film’s last hour.

It's not overstepping the bounds of decency to suggest that the bus accident sequence can be read as a loaded metaphor for the attacks on the World Trade Center, though I'd hate to attempt to parse exactly which real-life role each character is allegorizing. What's important is that Margaret takes place in Manhattan a few years after the attacks, in a city still shell-shocked, angry, and petrified. The fact is palpably in the air throughout, personified in Lisa's anxious, combative energy, and it's made explicit in classroom scenes in which a righteous Lisa screams, “They blew up our city!” at a rival student explaining what she believes to be the hijackers' rationale (imperialist intrusion in Islamic holy lands).

Since it contains so much else, I hate to see Margaret pigeonholed as a 9/11 movie. That the event looms large is only another symptom of its acute sensitivity to its setting, the same instinct that inspired Lonergan to include a half-hour’s worth of lingering exterior shots, many of nooks and corners of upper Manhattan never captured in films. The deluge of unusually extended cityscape shots by DP Ryszard Lenczewski ensures that it's never forgotten where the action is taking place. These shots, which in their repetition go well beyond merely establishing location, force the issue of the city as a crucial component of the human characters’ DNA. The cityscape timeouts might be excessive, but it’s winsome excess: it’s hard to complain about overkill when the images of Upper West Side high-rises and glittering rush-hour gridlock are so handsome. Lenczewski’s images, many at magic hour or night, could hang proudly on a wall next to Gordon Willis’s in Manhattan.

Despite the straightforward (considering the three-hour length) story, the film is still knotty and complex because it’s really about relationships: Lisa and her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), long-distance father Karl (Lonergan), teachers (Matts Damon and Broderick), classmates, city, boys, and the victim’s friend Emily (Elaine May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin). The latter, meanly intelligent and allergic to bullshit, is devoted to her late friend, and becomes something like a severe stepmother to Lisa. At first, Emily is reluctant to humor the girl, but Lisa's keyed up passion and logic eventually convince her to assist pursuing punishment of the negligent bus driver, legitimizing Lisa's righteousness. Lisa's driving kinship with the spirit of Monica's deceased daughter is an early hint at her solipsistic, typically teenage tendency to view life as fatalistic grand theater, starring herself. There are vacations from Lisa’s taxing self-absorption, running time¬–stretching but crucial for tone and context (much extended in the director’s cut). These involve her mother Joan’s stage-acting career and Joan's dates with a soft-spoken foreign wooer, Ramon (Jean Reno), who is as from another galaxy from those in her theater coterie. In a gorgeously framed and backdropped exchange on his Upper West Side balcony, Ramon silences the fretting Joan, who shares her daughter’s perpetual agitation, with the oddly comforting, “Let’s not talk about what we are like.” Lonergan won’t let his characters off that easily, because he does want to know what they are like: his film is a feature-length attempt at trying to figure them out.

Paquin, an Oscar-winner at eleven, is uncanny as a character you might be tempted to call unlikable just because she’s so lifelike. She’s cutting in arguments with her single mother, and obliquely self-aware. Paquin makes Lisa’s abrasiveness sympathetic, and she shows pathetic vulnerability in an excruciating scene of her deflowering. Instead of her gentlemanly but milquetoast admirer Darren (John Gallagher Jr.), she gives the assignment to Paul, a sarcastic classmate played by Kieran Culkin, and she lets slip an embarrassing “I love you” during their miserably brief coitus. After, she tells him she's “actually kind of mad” at him for not wearing a condom, saying she doesn’t want AIDS or a pregnancy, before pivoting to insecurity with “I know you probably have, like, no feelings at all for me.” Abrupt shifts in temperament like this are typical of Lisa's mother, too. Physically slight, Smith-Cameron is sweet but combative when necessary as Joan. Fallible, she crosses the line when she advises Lisa to lie about the green stoplight, and calls her daughter a "little cunt" during one row. The critic Wesley Morris smartly compared Margaret to the films of Paul Mazursky, and Smith-Cameron’s backboned independence does echo Jill Clayburgh’s touching work in Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman.

Except for Ruffalo’s rage when a qualmish Lisa comes knocking unexpectedly at his door, the men in Margaret are quiet creatures. Karl's testiness is thinly suppressed, and in Lonergan’s few scenes on the phone with Lisa from his beach house, you can sense the discord with his current wife and Karl's childish woundedness when he cancels a horsing excursion (“No one is excited,” he whines to Lisa, which we might view as a foretelling of his arguments with Margaret’s producers). Here we see the roots of Lisa’s petulance and aggression. Though Lisa and her math teacher’s subplot might be the movie’s most extraneous, Damon reliably provides the same quality he brought to Good Will Hunting, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Informant!, and True Grit—easygoing charm masking shameful weakness. Damon's be-sweatered hypocrite curses himself after having sex with, and possibly impregnating, Lisa. He deserves scorn for betraying the bedrock of the teacher-student relationship, but also pity for how easily he is manipulated by the forceful Lisa. When she approaches him on the street about having had an abortion, as he’s walking with a female colleague, he’s practically trembling that she’ll reveal their secret.

At one point before their hookup and falling out, Damon and Paquin are shown through a window conversing over coffee at a diner. The camera zooms in slowly, remaining outside, and their words are inaudible. In another diner scene, Lisa’s talking with the long-suffering Darren, and their conversation is eclipsed by the Altman-esque cacophony of surrounding conversations. As critic Robert Koehler put it, "The city won't allow her to be the center of attention." Lonergan's decision to emphasize the din and congestion puts Lisa's trials, so all-important to her, into the noisy, crowded context of New York City, where confined spaces constantly force other people's narratives upon your own, scrambling the frequency of your internal monologue. The clash of cultures, too, creates its own noisy friction, of which prejudicially charged eruptions like those between Lisa and her pro-Palestinian classmate are manifestations. In Margaret as in New York and the larger world, toxins like anti-Semitism are airborne and ever-present, revealing themselves plainly in a dinner scene between Lisa, Joan, Emily, and Ramon. Lisa (who identifies as “half-Jewish”), brings up her classroom arguments, which leads to a Ramon discourse on Israeli “oppressors” and “the Jewish response,” which leads to Emily throwing her drink in his face and exiting.

Margaret’s free-floating interpersonal and cultural tension is reflected in Nico Muhly’s emotive score as well. At times his music blends plausibly with additional cues from Don Giovanni and The Tales of Hoffmann, a musical link hinting that Lonergan agrees with Lisa that her ordeal is, in its own way, the stuff of immortal theater. In a key scene, Emily savagely attempts to puncture Lisa's conviction that she cares more than those older than her, with Emily's crucial line in her lengthy harangue, "it's not an opera and it's not dramatic!" This spiked dose of cynicism, like the disappointing resolution of the lawsuit, is a corrective that it's tempting to feel the sanctimonious Lisa deserves. But the film never lets its primary sympathies stray from Lisa, or indicts her naïveté. Lonergan has an earnestness that carries over into the affecting final scene with Lisa and Joan sharing a tearful hand clutch while in the audience of a performance of The Tales of Hoffman at Lincoln Center. They're reaching an understanding, and Lisa might finally be coming to accept and forgive her own decision to lie at the scene of the accident. An argument could be made that the high-art invocations constitute a smokescreen concealing a vacuum, but they're attuned to Lisa (and her mother's) private melodramas.

A lot of the best scenes in Margaret sit aside the plot, eccentric larks that deepen character relationships or don’t serve any function, like Lisa and her friend mocking a passing Broderick in Central Park for saying “smoke a J.” My favorites, because they encapsulate the confessional, emotion-baring spirit of Margaret, take place on a stage during some sort of theater exercise, in which the teacher asks the students to apologize to a classmate for any wrong they think they've done the other. The Culkin character makes a cheap quip, while Lisa launches into a teary sorry to Darren and a declaration of love of her best friend Becky (Sarah Steele)—yet another crucial relationship in a film full of them. It’s all very precious and emo (accentuated by Muhly's persistent strings), and a more sensitive flipside to those charged political arguments in the world affairs class.

Margaret earns its operatic epilogue because of its accumulation of all of these smaller moments and miniature climaxes. Again with the contradictions—it's a big, emotional ejaculation of a movie about an often irrationally passionate protagonist that is also soberly, classically structured, opening with major conflict and building towards that final, tearful, moral resolution. It's a throwback to individualistic 70s auteur films like All That Jazz, The King of Marvin Gardens, and the similarly postproduction-troubled Mikey and Nicky, with a dash of British “Angry Young Man” (or “Woman”) abrasiveness. Yet it only makes sense in its mid-2000s Manhattan setting. A last contradiction: the film's title is a source of initial confusion when you learn Paquin's character is not named Margaret. That name comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s brief poem “Spring and Fall,” dedicated “to a young child” and read in one of Lisa's classes. In it, a girl cries over falling leaves while the narrator assures her that she will soon grow cold and weep always with the self-consciousness of her own mortality. That it would be linked to both the delicate despondency of the Hopkins poem and the epic gestures of a work like Don Giovanni, and confidently be about both one girl and her mom and a whole city, speaks to Margaret's ambitions and achievement.