The Adolescent Need for Justice and Order: ‘Margaret’

“It is Margaret you mourn for.” This is the final line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall”, a poem dedicated “to a young child” who has just had a first, unwitting glimpse of her own mortality. And it is “Margaret” that Kenneth Lonergan has called his most recent, and most astonishing, film. I call the film astonishing because, with Margaret, Lonergan has done something very rare: he has made a film centered on an adolescent girl that never trivializes her emotions and, in doing so, speaks volumes to us all.

Heartbreakingly, a prolonged legal battle has prevented many of the people who watch and love movies from ever having heard of Margaret. In September 2011, three litigious years after post-production was completed, Lonergan’s film was released in exactly two theaters — and then effectively buried. But Margaret is finally available to everyone with this DVD release.

When you see it, you’ll wish that Lonergan, as well as the remarkable performances from a cast that includes Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin, and Allison Janney, as well as some outstanding lesser-knowns, had been given the recognition they deserved during awards season. And cold comfort though it is, such an absence of proper respects is just what dogs the film’s young protagonist.

Lisa, as played by Anna Paquin, is a voluble beauty of a girl prone to hyper-articulate sarcasm. She lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her theater-actress mother (J. Smith Cameron) and a little brother she mostly ignores.

As the film begins, following a haunting Manhattan street prelude scored by Nico Muhly, we see Lisa slouched in her seat in a private high school for (as she puts it) “a bunch of over-privileged liberal Jews.” We see her try to equivocate her way out of being caught cheating on a geometry test. But that sense of privilege will be deeply shaken in the aftermath of a terrible accident that Lisa can’t let go of.

Visually, the scene of the accident will be difficult for viewers to let go of, as well. Lonergan and cinematographer Ryszard Lencewski use small, incidental details to convey its visceral reality: the eggs in a grocery cart smashed beneath the wheel of a bus, the unnoticed spatter of blood on shower tile as Lisa later tries to rinse the dead woman’s blood from her own skin.

“I just wanted to acknowledge with you what happened,” Lisa says to the city bus driver (a scruffy-as-usual Mark Ruffalo) who has played a crucial role in the accident. But he won’t acknowledge anything. And through the many dimensions of the film’s full two and a half hours, some version of this scene plays out again and again.

Margaret is particularly good at showing the girl’s confused yet determined search for some way to mark what she has witnessed. No doubt well versed in the tropes of coming-of-age narratives, Lisa makes numerous attempts to externalize the change she feels in herself. Repeatedly, she pushes the adults around her into situations where they must take responsibility. But they never do. Instead, she finds herself in a world of smashed ideals, where the adults are no wiser than the children and a woman can be killed on the street without anyone taking responsibility for the death.

Yet what is all the more affecting about these lost ideals is that Lisa was barely conscious of them to begin with. Rather, we understand that she has simply taken them for granted. To find, then, that adults lie and shirk responsibility — and that it’s not always clear who is in the wrong: this is what it means to lose one’s innocence.

The film is especially attuned to this need for justice and order in adolescents. Especially in the context of Lisa’s crisis, it makes perfect sense that the heated classroom discussions erupt into shouting matches over who is to blame for the September 11 attacks, or how to interpret a nihilistic line from King Lear. The kids are inflamed by these questions, even as they self-consciously posture, mocking themselves and one another, at once precocious and naïve. They’re not necessarily prepared to do it, but they want someone to take responsibility and right the wrongs of the world.

And you feel for them all as you watch Lisa uncover the terrible absence of justice or order in the adult world — as slowly, you might say, she realizes there is no one driving the bus. Margaret shows this carelessness in its adults with a sympathy that seems to stem from disappointment. We see it in the failure of Lisa’s boyish geometry teacher (Damon) to be “the most grown-up, responsible person” that Lisa declares him to be. We see it in the petty insistences of her English teacher (Broderick) when a student won’t agree with him. Such childishness is ingeniously on display in the actress-mother’s spot-on dinner table impression of a bawling cartoon baby. We see it in the older boy (Culkin) who turns out to be not at all the sexual sophisticate Lisa has believed him to be. And of course we see it in the bus driver, who refuses to acknowledge his own role in the accident.

Lisa seems to have found a kind of ally, then, in Emily (played with pitch-perfect New Yorkiness by Jeannie Berlin), a middle-aged woman who was the best friend of the woman killed in the accident. Together, Emily and Lisa mount a serious lawsuit in an attempt to right the senseless death. “We just want someone to take responsibility for what happened,” Emily shouts more than once during the all-too abstract legal proceedings. But instead, what is revealed is a sophistic system that can process its society’s wrongs without ever assigning blame or responsibility.

Thus, while the film’s conversational glances at Muslim extremists, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even the Third Reich may seem grandiose, in some respects, this is a film that, even within the necessarily limited scope of a teenage girl’s world, understands the urge for hyperbole. Is the senseless death of one person on the street, in your arms — the film seems to ask — any easier to accept than the deaths of hundreds of thousands on a global scale? As if in reply, Lonergan cuts from one scene to the next with startling effect, juxtaposing the great and the mundane, shifting from histrionic outbursts to only the empty sky.

Throughout it all, as Nico Muhly’s mournful operatic score plays on, there is always, always the traffic: it flows anonymously over the site of the accident and beyond. The film quietly depicts an Upper West Side not of tourist guides or of movies, but of the people who live there. Through Lencewski’s careful cinematography, the city becomes a bystander to its own fate, via lingering shots of empty sky, skylines absent of any people, and color-saturated, slow tracking shots of the street. Like figures out of The Divine Comedy as retold in The Waste Land, people move in slowed motion, endlessly and anonymously through the city. “I had not thought death had undone so many,” you can almost hear someone say.

“This is not an opera,” Emily excoriates Lisa at one point. “We are not all supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life.” But the point is that the emotions of a very young person are indeed as all-consuming as a diva’s tragic aria. Soberingly, the truth that Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall” puts to its Margaret, and the point that Emily hurls at Lisa, is how one will, with time, become inured to life’s tragedies. Perhaps this is what Lisa is confronting — that the standards of the everyday adult world are not adequate to the enormousness of her feelings. This may be why, the film suggests, we need something more. And that something more, its final scene will attest, is art.

The DVD, released July 10, features the original three-hour director’s cut of the film — available for the first time since the legal battle it incited in 2008. While the two-and-a-half hour theatrical release seems as intricate and as fully realized as a realist novel, I expect that the incorporation of the lost fragments will feel very natural: Margaret is a film that, in its profound understanding of its subject matter, makes every turn feel like a natural extension of the world it has created.

Note: I received only the screener for this film — not the actual DVD. Hence, I am unable to provide information about extras.

RATING 10 / 10