Friday, April 26, 2013

Margaret: A Marvelous Mess

Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
US, 2011, 150 mins.
Available on DVD/BluRay/Amazon Instant

Movies shouldn't need a disclaimer, but sometimes the struggle involved in making and releasing a particular film leaves traces so evident in watching the thing, it becomes hard to imagine what viewers who don't know the backstory would think.

Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is a film that bears such traces. Originally set for a 2006 release, Margaret was instead dogged by a spate of post-production problems. Lonergan reportedly angered studio bosses by taking too long to come up with a final cut, and the film languished, unfinished and in litigation, until a salvage-job cut was more or less buried in limited release last year. The version that hit theaters is unevenly paced, full of seemingly-bizarre tonal shifts and plot threads that appear to either arise from, or end up going, nowhere.

Yet, despite the film's missteps and not-quite-fulfilled ambitions, Margaret is a beautiful, masterfully acted and directed work of cinema.

When we meet Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), she's dealing with typical adolescent crises like figuring out how to relate to her friends and family and coming to grips with her own burgeoning sexuality. She flirts with her math teacher (Matt Damon) and physically engages a couple of boys at the Manhattan private school she attends. At home, she enjoys the privileges her Broadway star mother's (J. Smith-Cameron) lifestyle provides while treating her with a mix of indifference and disdain. Like most teenagers, she is self-involved and overly-dramatic, wearing her emotions not so much on her sleeve as spelled out in neon lights visible for miles around (a fitting metaphor for an actor's daughter).

As such, it's difficult to guess which of Margaret's alienating mood swings stem from editorial miscues and which are deliberate choices. The film is about what happens when the already-heightened emotional lability of a teenage girl is compressed under the weight of guilt in the face of deep tragedy.

One day, Lisa distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), who then runs a red light and slams into Monica (Alison Janney). In an excruciating scene, Monica dies in Lisa's arms, but Lisa subsequently covers for the driver during the investigation. She does this in part due to her mother's advice that she not “ruin his life” by getting him fired and depriving his family of income, and in part due to her own guilt and inability to process her feelings. She eventually changes her mind and gets together with the dead Monica's best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) to try and see some justice done, though her reasons for doing so remain unclear even to herself.

Paquin's performance may at first blush seem over-the-top if you've never known a teenager—particularly one from an upper-class or upper-middle-class background—whose intellectual maturity outpaces her or his emotional maturity. But Paquin is great at showing how Lisa's adolescent solipsism clashes with the larger world, and how her inability to control her own feelings belies her attempts to control and manipulate the people around her. The turbulent dynamic between Lisa and her mother becomes the film's flighty, hard-to-pin-down heart.

Lonergan displays a knack for sharp observation, and the ability to put us into a character's perspective without spelling out their motivations—a concept often made visual through situating characters with their backs to the camera. He plays with a lot of ideas in Margaret, and his allusions to highbrow pursuits like opera, theater, literature, and poetry (such as the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem from which the film derives its title and themes) give the film a depth that promises to bear fruit if tended with academic scrutiny. But on a more basic level, Margaret is interested in perspectives and performance, in the roles people play in the self-created narratives of their lives. It is a sort of a coming-of-age story about an open, naive teenager learning to navigate the compromises, contradictions, and cynicism-blunted emotions of a morally-ambiguous adult world.

It is also a film about the violence—intentional and unintentional, physical and emotional—that people inflict upon each other, and how we choose to contextualize and justify that violence. Though Margaret was filmed six years ago, it'd be easy to think it takes place even earlier than that. The specter of 9/11 hangs over Margaret's New York, and the film is heavy with the sense of fear, vulnerability, and mistrust that was the hallmark of the days following the attacks. This is most apparent in the classroom scenes where Lisa argues with a Syrian-American student about the Afghan and Iraq wars, but it also colors the film's preoccupation with the narratives we use to reshape power dynamics to make them more palatable.

Though Lonergan's film never quite fits all of these ideas together into a coherent whole, you come away with the nagging sense that there's a great film in there, somewhere (which is probably the same feeling that fueled Lonergan's struggles to find a satisfying final cut). If Margaret is a miss, it is, at least, an overly-ambitious miss, which is far better than a miss that aims low to begin with. Even still, if you can abide its sometimes-abrasive (if true-to-life) central character and up-and-down pacing issues, Margaret is a deep, hypnotically-fascinating look at adolescence with a ring of truth too often absent from films about the lives of teens.

If you enjoy Margaret, it may be worthwhile to check out the three-hour cut available as a special feature on the DVD/BluRay release to see if it fills any of the 2.5-hour cut's more obvious holes.

No comments:

Post a Comment