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Margaret is about a bright, articulate, but exceedingly self-absorbed New York teenager who’s going through the wringer—putting herself through it, really. It’s also about two and a half hours long, an indication of the outsize ambition of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, who's produced a nuanced meditation on trauma and grief. Near the beginning, the protagonist, Lisa (Anna Paquin), tries from the sidewalk to catch the eye of a bus driver, causing him to plow through a red light and over a pedestrian, who dies in Lisa’s arms. She gives a statement to the police that exonerates him—the light was green, she tells them. She lied because she’d been urged by her mother to think of the driver's family, but she grows less and less satisfied with this resolution, to the point of returning to the police to revise her statement. That accomplishes nothing, of course—the case has been closed, and a traffic accident is a nonpriority. She seeks out the victim’s friend, Emily, and they endeavor to sue the transit agency for negligence. They don’t want the money, which would go to a member of the victim's family, anyway; they just want the driver to lose his job. They want, in some old-fashioned way, justice.
It took me a while to figure out who Emily, played by Jeannie Berlin, reminded me of. She’s an electrifying presence in this film—at turns profane, defensive, funny, and vulnerable. In a powerful scene she lashes out at Lisa, who’s clearly caught up in her self-image as a justice seeker. As Emily points out, Lisa treats everybody else—including Emily, the best friend of a dead woman Lisa never knew—as if they’re supporting characters in her own personal melodrama. This was about when it hit me—there's something about Emily that recalls Jennifer Melfi, the therapist who dumps Tony Soprano as a patient when she realizes that he is irreparable. (Melfi, for those of you living in the reality-based community, was played by Lorraine Bracco; I just have a hard time thinking about her as anything other than Tony Soprano's therapist.)
Recently I happened to read Emily Nussbaum’s 2007 reflection on The Sopranos, published in New York magazine following the show’s final episode. The estimable TV critic argues that creator David Chase “played us for suckers,” spending eight seasons taunting viewers into feeling something for Tony only to punish us later for caring. It becomes clear, finally, that Tony’s been using Dr. Melfi. She thinks she can help him, but he repurposes what he’s gained from their therapy sessions to make himself a more practiced liar—“he became a better mobster, not a better man,” Nussbaum writes.
Lisa is the Tony Soprano character in Margaret. That’s not to say that she’s a ruthless gangster—only that both characters live within a flexible moral universe bent inward toward themselves. But that’s because Tony, as Dr. Melfi eventually realizes, is a sociopath; Lisa’s only a teenager, for whom altruism and selfishness aren’t easily separable. She mistakes one for the other. “Not that I want to make this woman’s death into my own personal moral gymnasium,” she says at one point, lifting a phrase from George Bernard Shaw. In the way that Tony used Dr. Melfi, so does Lisa try to use Emily as a moral cause out of which she stands to profit emotionally—insinuating herself into the woman’s grief in a way that has nothing to do with Emily or her deceased friend. The difference is that Emily hips to what’s going on much more quickly than Dr. Melfi did.
The original Shaw quote is a criticism of somebody for their “habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in,” which is a decent indictment of Lisa’s own character. Like David Chase, Lonergan allows us to wonder if this one can be saved; unlike Chase, he doesn’t offer much resolution. At the outset Lisa's intolerable—overprivileged and obnoxious. The woman’s death humanizes her, revealing where and how she’s vulnerable, and the odd lengths to which she’ll go to express or sublimate it. In one scene she asks a skeezy classmate, played by Kieran Culkin, to take her virginity—the sex that follows is supremely awkward because it rings so true.
But as she grows more righteous in her desire for justice, Lisa becomes a turn-off, both to Emily and to us. Toward the end of the film, she approaches two of her teachers, one of whom she had sex with, and blithely informs them that she’s had an abortion. Is it true? Probably not, but it comes at a moment when Lisa’s crusade is waning. She needs to kick up some new drama. It’s an indication of Lisa’s overarching agenda: herself.