'Margaret' and Me: The Agony and Ecstasy of Watching Lisa Cohen

Austin Dale

We need to talk about Margaret, a movie for cinephiles that inspires the most cinephilic behaviors imaginable. Kenneth Lonergan's masterpiece is equally cinematic and personal.


Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Kieran Culkin, Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Year: 2011

On the last Saturday evening of February, several hundred moviegoers filled up the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, for a film called Margaret. The screening celebrated the film's unprecedented national art house revival after its initial disaster of a theatrical run -- an event that will surely be written about in the future as some kind of proof of film criticism's lingering power. True, Margaret rose -- on the backs of some enthusiastic critics and Tweets (the #TeamMargaret phenomenon) -- from Fox Searchlight's scrap heap to become a respectable indie success. But that audience forgot about the talk that brought them to the theater and sat transfixed, alarmed, and bewildered by a 150-minute film that even its staunchest defenders deemed artless, sprawling and messy. In other words: Margaret was magic.

For me, Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is neither sprawling nor messy. In its current form, the only truly negative thing I can say about it is that it feels severely truncated, and its supposed messiness only comes from the film's condensation. Scenes cut off far before what we feel is their real ending, and on a whole, so much is introduced into the film that it is expected that certain narrative elements appear and disappear before they can be noticed. Narrative arcs come and go. Characters disappear. Our central character, Lisa Cohen, is such a mess of contradictions that she becomes simultaneously the most genuinely realized teenager I've ever seen on the screen -- yes, for real -- and the most confusing central character an already delirious narrative could have.

But more on Lisa later.

There is just so much movie to be found here that quite literally every moment bewilders me with its depth and scope and Lonergan's sincerely felt love for the project and characters. I want to use this space to examine the particular genius of this movie and as many of those moments as I can, but I also want to touch on a lot of very personal things about my relationship with Margaret. as I haven't had a reaction to a movie this strong in years. After my first exposure to the film, I had such a compulsion to watch it on repeat that Cinema Village eventually gave me their one-sheet.

It's an obsession. I'm very much aware of this. Yet, on these repeated repeat viewings, I find the hidden patterns in this truncated, abused film even more musical and compelling, and I never cease to discover new minor details: An invisible-but-important two-second shot there, an overheard phone call there. I doubt that, when I watch the film again when this article is finished and published, I won't yearn to go back and change things about it. Perhaps this is a feeling of devotion more experienced film writers will recognize when they're writing about a film they love deeply, but as a young person and a novice writer, actually experiencing this is more than a little devastating, almost mirroring the themes of revelation experienced by Lisa in the film. Sure, I've written about films with an academic distance, but I can't help but write about this film personally, because that's where my connection with it lies.

The opening scenes that follow the credits introduce us to Lisa Cohen, the 17-year-old protagonist played by Anna Paquin. Where do we begin with Lisa? We see her in her classroom, waiting for her teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon) to return her test. As she waits for "Cohen" to be called, her wordless expressions depict first impatience, then intense focus, then condescension for her classmates. Then she starts fixing her hair for her teacher. We follow her up, stepping into her point of view as she and her teacher exchange looks. His are no-nonsense, hers are a poor attempt at seduction. You get the sense that she's the girl most likely to sleep with her teacher. She has a budding sexuality that she isn't the least bit uncomfortable with, but her confidence is misplaced. She wants to make you her victim. She wants to impress you. Instead, she just makes you cringe. She embodies that weird moment in adolescence, which I don't remember seeing before on film, where you are aware that you can use your sexuality to get something you want but you don't quite know how to turn on your directional, so to speak. For example, Lonergan dresses Lisa really poorly. She's wearing a hideous brown miniskirt, too short to be flattering, a grey hoodie, and a too-tight blue shirt. When she spends a minute approving of her reflection in a shop window, you want to know what the hell she's thinking, and then you remember having thought what she's thinking.

Her sexuality isn't the only thing Lonergan tells you about Lisa in her opening scenes. Her dialogue is, in every moment, revealing of a fully-fleshed out character. It's almost awkward to listen to Lisa in the opening scenes, because Lonergan doesn't give you 21 minutes to catch up with her. You're immediately placed into her world and asked to follow her. And this is a crazy way to get to know her. She talks with Mr. Aaron about her test. She cheated, she readily owns up before he can accuse her outright, and she rationalizes it the way a smart-ass 17-year-old would ("It was open book. It's not like I'm actually going to need to know this stuff in my daily life!") and makes it so he can't really punish her. Lisa makes a point of dominating each conversation she's in and trying to prove to everyone that she is intelligent, independent, chill, and thoughtful. This only works on Darren, her crushing classmate who isn't quite cool enough for her. Everyone else is very clearly put off by it, or knowingly and resentfully going along with it. Lonergan cuts away all the bullshit we see on television and captures the way adults interact with teenagers. And when pressed by her, the adults in the film avoid blatant condescension, replacing it with either plainly-spoken anger or fatigued annoyance.

The exciting thing about Lonergan's characterization of Lisa is that it doesn't stop developing after the bus accident that starts off the film's main narrative. As she dives further into the lawsuit she sets into motion, the other aspect of her life don't fade away. Her sexual awakening, her interactions with her useless parents and her political classroom outbursts all feel disconnected from each other, but they all purposefully add to her character. Lisa's psychology rarely comes under scrutiny in the screenplay itself. The film is paced so ferociously, and every moment is packed with dialogue, that we are left with only words and actions to figure her out. Luckily, everything we are given in the ten minutes before the bus accident gives us a foundation for understanding her, and nothing we see later on isn't completely cohesive with our first impressions. And when Lisa finally achieves her first measure of self-awareness and sees the error of her ways, so to speak, the film ends.

I've spent lots of time worrying about what would happen to Lisa in the future. I am not sure she's actually going to change after her revelation at the opera. I don't have the slightest idea what she's going to major in when she gets to college. Since this movie took place so long ago, maybe she's starting to feel some sort of guilt about her upbringing and join up with Occupy Wall Street. Maybe she'll sleep with a lot of art world people before becoming disillusioned with New Yorkers and moving to Maine for three months. Maybe she'll talk her way into, and then out of, a Vogue internship. Perhaps the greatest brilliance of the role of Lisa is that every word Lonergan writes for her could not come from the mouth of someone older. Her basic situation -- discovering that the world really doesn't revolve around her -- is particularly adolescent.

Parenthetically, there is another major aspect to Lisa; and it's something criticism of the movie fails to address. After repeated viewings, I've noticed blatant, but vague, symbolism. Of course, some people I've read have picked up on the film's post-9/11 atmosphere of guilt, loneliness, and confusion, however, to me, it's clear that one of Lonergan's many goals is for Lisa to symbolize America or Bush or his administration. This is by no means a perfect argument, but it deserves some thought. Through this logic, the bus accident is a stand-in for 9/11. They're both sudden, but not completely unexpected, moments of carnage and bloodshed on the streets of New York that has left perpetual trauma. Furthermore, one might call the misguided, ultimately fruitless and wasteful lawsuit Lisa embarks on a stand-in for the war on terror.

For a while, it seemed like Anna Paquin could become a major American actress. For a few years, when she wasn't working on those X-Men films, she was hard to avoid in the New York theater world, appearing in a string of notable productions, winning plenty of awards and returning on the promise her child-star Oscar implied. She started to show up in ingenue roles in New York indies like Spike Lee's 25th Hour and Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale. Margaret, however, shows a young actress at the peak of her powers, given a challenging role no other actress could play. Paquin takes Lonergan's famously unbridled but precise script, follows his notes directly, and gives so much of herself in each line, you worry she's going to combust. The most important thing, however, is that Paquin takes Lisa very seriously, with love and respect. And even as Lisa repeatedly implodes and you hate her for it, Paquin makes sure the audience feels Lonergan's empathy for the character. Watching Paquin's work since her stint in New York leaves me disappointed, and one wonders what her career would look like if Margaret had been released on time and given the attention it deserved. Margaret should have been Paquin's Of Human Bondage performance.

There is a moment in the film where Lisa brings up the George Bernard Shaw quote, "The Englishman sees the world as his own personal moral gymnasium." I see Margaret the same way. I'm at war with this movie; it has forced me to grapple with my ever-changing, post-adolescent emotions and examine the way I have interacted with the world since my teenage years spent in a post-9/11 America. I'm sick of trying to, for lack of better terms, intellectualize the film for people who have seen it and don't get exactly why I'm obsessed with it. It's a question of cinephilia and not of cinema. It's about seeing a character I relate to and remember being a lot like, come to life in this shocking and vivid performance. Seeing conversations I've had and mistakes I've made while they're still fresh in my memory is nerve wracking and wonderful. Whatever critical perceptions I gained as a film student fall apart and what is left is something close to awe. It's not a perfectly assembled movie. I get that. But for me, it's more than a movie. My feelings for it make me want to unlearn everything I know about the cinema. I'm starting to wonder how watching Lisa Cohen will contribute to my transition into adulthood.

P.S. Kenneth Lonergan, if you're reading this, I want to see the rest of this movie in the longest possible form. You can swear me to secrecy. I'll gladly comply just to spend more time with Lisa.

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