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I love movies, but I don't usually get to write about them, so bear with me a moment here for a little personal background. The way I like them is on the big screen, in a dark theater, unfolding as a wonderful surprise. That makes me heavily dependent on thumbs up or down assessments—I try not to read full reviews until after I’ve seen the film, when they can be savored. Previews? Ugh. Such spoilers.
By these standards (if you share them, kindred spirit, stop reading now), I already knew too much about writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret before I saw it, on Saturday at the Siskel Center.
Which is usually the case, because—as the teen protagonist in this dark coming-of-age story learns—we don’t live in a perfect world.
Here’s what I knew going in: the film, shot in 2005, had been delayed for years because Lonergan didn’t want to cut it to the 149 minutes his studio was demanding and at which it now runs. That didn’t really matter.
I also knew that it’s about a girl who plays a pivotal role in a bus accident that kills a woman. That did matter. It blunted the impact the accident would have had if I wasn’t expecting it.
But it didn’t keep the film from being deeply engrossing.
Since I had also seen Lonergan’s only previous film, the excellent You Can Count on Me, I was expecting intimate, authentic performances. No disappointment there: Anna Paquin is pitch perfect as Lisa Cohen, a privileged, bitchy, and vulnerable New York adolescent. Lisa is strung out by her own complicity in the death of a stranger and overwhelmed by a world in which such things can happen and cannot be set right.
Paquin is supported by an ensemble of great actors, including Lonergan and his wife, J. Smith-Cameron as her divorced parents, Matt Damon as the teacher she has a crush on (and seduces), Mark Ruffalo as the bus driver, and Kieran Culkin as one of the film’s several other teenagers.
Set in Woody Allen’s Manhattan territory, this (like much of Allen's work) is a richly musical and visual appreciation of the city, hung on a couple of pointed literary references. The title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about a youngster’s realization of mortality ("It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for"). And a classroom discussion of Shakespeare’s King Lear focuses on these clearly relevant lines: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport.”
Like opera (which it frequently references), Margaret strains credulity at some important points. The macabre death scene, for example, features a weirdly vocal and too-coherent, blood-spurting victim. And the tearful closing reunion of Lisa and her mother during a Met performance of the Tales of Hoffmann brings to mind Pretty Woman, not in a good way. Then there's the fact that the entire plot rests on the importance of Lisa’s eyewitness account of whether a traffic light was green—never mind that there were dozens of other witnesses.
After the lights come up and you're down the stairs and back out on the street, it might seem like Lonergan has mostly created a setup—a hypothetical case designed to raise philosophical questions. But in the moment, it's all about those transcendent performances.
Wow, this is a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it.