Watching Anna Paquin as the elaborately neurotic Lisa in Margaret is as embarrassing as it is empowering. Lisa embodies that humorously memorable time when we were Just So Sure; sure everyone was intellectually beneath us, kept aglow by the seething thoughts of Just You Wait.
Spoiler alert – there is no ‘Margaret’ in Margaret. The movie is named after the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem ‘Spring and Fall to a Young Child’, read by Lisa’s teacher (Matthew Broderick) in the film. Fun fact – the poem was introduced to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan by Matthew Broderick’s mother (Lonergan’s mentor) and as the concept of the poem collided with the themes of his film, Lonergan changed the working title ‘Bus Film’ to ‘Margaret’.
Set in the aftermath of 911, Margaret opens with a ghastly accident on a busy New York street involving a flirtatious Lisa, a flattered bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) and a horrifically injured woman (Allison Janney). The event plunges Lisa deep out of her depth, but the arrogance of her youth keeps her afloat. It’s here we’re privy to just how emotionally underdeveloped she is, despite her insistence on the opportunity to prove otherwise. She sees breaking (or in this case, admitting that she feels responsible for the accident) as weakness, and apathy (although her anxiety manifests in her splenetic reactions) as strength. The privilege of her naiveté allows this to be her truth, and fair enough – at 17, she’s none the wiser.
No more Mr Nice Girl
Lisa’s character is far from nice yet perfectly normal which is what makes her so devilishly good. She allows us to simultaneously mourn and wince at our younger selves through her storm of self righteousness as we find her at that apex of adolescence – toes on tips peering lustfully over the ledge of womanhood. She’s so blindingly self absorbed she sees no need in looking down to see if she’ll fall and crash on someone below, she’s blissfully confident she could fly on her freshly ‘woke’ wings.
Margaret has an impasto quality. Its thick imperfect layers bleed across typical themes of self discovery; divorce, love, the power of sex, realising your mother is a human and not just the sleeping bag you had nine month nap in. These rites of passage are hard enough to deal with without distractions of grief and the bureaucratic legal system which can blemish the blueprints of any teenager’s plans for world domination.
You’ve got to give it to Lisa, on top of trying impetuously to lose her virginity, seduce her teacher (Matt Damon) and bark political exclamations at her peers, she’s also dealing with how to wash blood out of her hair and navigate an ambiguous guilt. Although dramatised, it’s a homage to the internal chaos those years were for us and Lonergan fears nothing of tackling that neurosis head on dismissing a palatable, blithe rendition of adolescence. It’s a jarring chapter of time for anyone and few films convey that chaos with such cathartic splendour.
Lonergan’s intrigue with the see-saw of teen to adult is perceptive if a little bleak. Speaking to NPR he said; ‘It’s a fascinating age [teenhood] as their opinions feel half formed – their opinions are borrowed. The first part of the movie is ‘teenage land’ and the second half is ‘adult land’ where they’re not as passionate and things aren’t as easy as they are in ‘teenage land’ – there’s a wall of reality that slows everything down when you’re out of your teens to the point where most people stop thinking they can have an affect on the world’.
As well as the erratic self-esteem of your salad days, the progress of your relationship with your parents can form a new skin. As we grow, our parents shed the uniform of parenthood allowing us to be privy to their actual person – one with needs and wants. Lisa’s relationship with her mother Joan (J.Smith. Cameron) both blossoms and sours as Joan (now divorced from Lisa’s dad played by Lonergan) shyly embarks on a relationship with Ramon (Jean Reno).
Lonergan continues; ‘You discover two things when growing up; 1) that your parents are not the idols you thought they were, 2) that you have power over them and you can upset them and confront them and attack them and there’s this combination of disappointment and judgment that teenagers frequently have that can be extremely savage to the parent, but it’s part of splitting off and getting away from the parent and becoming a grown up.’
The myriad of themes and plots may run over two hours yet Margaret never loses its groove, even among the scrapbook feel of blunt cuts and elongated shots which almost too blatantly contextualise New York’s fresh angst. There’s also a plethora of interesting characters to invest in (fleshed out by an impeccable cast fast becoming the main players in Lonergan’s cannon). Lonergan’s intentions were to present characters who despite their bonds ‘find it difficult to understand one another’ an objective crudely met when witnessing how each individual, despite their platonic, genetic or romantic affiliations are essentially alien to one another.
Despite the stuffing Margaret never feels crowded or disjointed. How could it? It’s New York – a city characterised by hoards of people with round pegs trying to fit the square of the American Dream. It’s a love letter to a city at its most bruised. As for the overtly neurotic Lisa, her chaos comforts our memories of being a despicable teen. She reassures us we weren’t the only ones with such beastly behaviour and in thinking so is neurotic in itself.