As Lisa Cohen’s quest in Margaret for her idea of justice becomes more and more frenzied, I felt a sudden jolt of understanding. Here is a teenager in the first flush of adult sin! Sin must be my sweet spot because at this point the movie completely had me.
Lisa (Anna Paquin) yearns to punish the driver whose bus she saw strike and kill a woman crossing the street in Manhattan. She was standing outside the bus door as it pulled away, distracting the driver (Mark Ruffalo) by trying to find out where he bought the cowboy hat he was wearing. Looking her way, he didn’t see the light turn red. Like her mom said, the guy probably had a family to support, and to protect him and make the tragedy go away, she told the police the light was green. That was good enough for the cops and the DA’s office, who made a perfunctory inquiry and closed the case. But this resolution hasn’t sat right with Lisa. By shielding the driver she has shielded herself, and she doesn’t want to be shielded. The death scourged her—something writer-director Kenneth Lonergan goes to melodramatic lengths to establish. The woman (Allison Janney) died holding Lisa’s hand, coating her in blood, and pleading with her to call “Lisa”—which, it turns out, was also the name of her own daughter, a girl who died at the age of 12.
Do something terribly wrong at a certain age, and your conflicting emotions can tear you apart. You want to get away with it, but you also want it known. By hounding the bus driver Lisa is both diverting blame and begging for it. She’s trying to send the world a message: “Look again, and when you’re looking, look at me.” Like so many adolescents living among adults with other things on their minds, she needs to be seen, and seen whole, for who she is. Now there is truly something to see. Lisa feels newly enlarged, defined, substantiated. Sin will do that, and hers was some sin.
Sin leads to sin. She invites a boy (Kieran Culkin) to rid her of her virginity. She seduces her geometry teacher (Matt Damon), and then she confronts the teacher (and the woman he’s with) on the street and announces that she’s just had an abortion and she isn’t sure who the father is but it doesn’t matter because she handled everything and isn’t going to tell. The movie doesn’t ask us to believe her necessarily, just so long as we understand her need for some reaction; but although the teacher must be sweating bullets he offers perfunctory words of concern and calls her bluff.
In the course of Margaret, Lisa locates Emily (Jeannie Berlin), who’s the dead woman’s closest friend, and a cousin in a distant state who couldn’t care less until she understands a suit against the bus company is likely to bring her a small fortune. The adults can live with knowing the suit will never be about more than money: the company has insurance and will deny fault but throw a few hundred thousand at them and that will be that. Only to the increasingly frenetic Lisa is it important that the bus driver personally pay. When Emily eventually blows up and tells Lisa to stop acting like such a diva—she didn’t even know the woman and this tragedy isn’t about her—Lisa is stunned and furious. It’s all about her! She’s the sinner here.
According to the Margaret website, Lisa’s problem is that “her youthful ideals are on a collision course against the realities and compromises of the adult world.” We’ve seen that movie a hundred times. But in those other movies the kids are driven by virtue. Lisa is driven by guilt, which is not only different but vastly more involving. If Lisa thinks she is better than anyone around, she also is sure she’s worse; she’s hit the age when it is possible for us to feel such a capacity for evil lurking within that it takes our breath away.
Eventually, when there’s nothing to show for all that wickedness but a squalid string of nickel and dime transgressions, we calm down and judge ourselves less dramatically. Sin stops being interesting. Lisa’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron) is at this stage. A prominent stage actress with a new show to open and a new relationship to figure out, she’s too much of a diva herself to do anything but resent her daughter’s grandiosity. She has no time or place for it. And Lisa is beside herself. If her own mother can’t see her now, can’t see her in her prodigious new monstrosity, when will her mother ever see her? Lisa so badly needs a hug.