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As Reader movie critic J.R. Jones noted in his review, the original version of Margaret was much longer than the one that reached theaters. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan was forced to cut the running time down to 149 minutes in order to get it released, and it's interesting to speculate on what exactly is missing from the tale of Lisa Cohen, a privileged Manhattan teen who goes a little mad after inadvertently causing a bus accident that kills a woman. Jones points, convincingly, to scenes involving Matt Damon as Mr. Aaron, Lisa's far too understanding math teacher. I tend to think some of the cuts must've come out of a subplot involving Lisa's divorced mom, Joan, and her courtly Colombian boyfriend, Ramon. Guilt and mourning are heavy presences in Margaret, and Joan has good reason to feel both when it comes to Ramon. In effect, he's her bus accident. And yet the scene in which she addresses the wreck directly seems to have been snipped from the movie.
Or maybe not. Maybe that scene wasn't in there to begin with. Maybe Joan is incapable of accessing emotions like guilt and mourning, since neither can exist where there's no empathy. An actress in the process of getting her big break, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) spends most of her time expressing various degrees of self-pity. Even when she seems to be coming out of herself, telling Lisa she's "proud" of her for initiating a vendetta against the bus driver who actually hit the dead woman, it's only an indication of how myopic she really is. When traumatized, confused Lisa acts out, Joan just feels compelled to act out bigger. And since she's a trained professional, she always wins.
It's Joan, in fact, who turns the trauma of the bus accident into a pathology for Lisa by blowing off her moral responsibility as a parent and encouraging Lisa to give the cops a false statement designed, ironically, to make things easier.
In that way she's emblematic of most of the other adults in this movie. With alarmingly few exceptions, Lisa is surrounded by children over 35. Her father, played by Lonergan himself, is a pusillanimous fop living in what appears to be Malibu with a younger woman who's clearly starting to regret her life choices. Her English teacher (Matthew Broderick)—well, he's another pusillanimous fop, but not as coyly manipulative as the father. And Damon's Mr. Aaron is the worst of them all, exploiting Lisa in the classic manner of a corrupt priest while telling himself he really shouldn't have done that. Meanwhile, the progressive school Lisa attends makes a fetish of respecting her maturity. No wonder she's a mess.
Oddly enough, it's the theater that saves her. (And here I may be about to give away more than you want to know, so be careful.) Not the trivial, casual, contemporary theater in which Joan makes her living, but the opera. For their first date, Ramon takes Joan to see something at the Met and she's put off by what she perceives as the audience members' snooty etiquette. Why, she wants to know, do they feel compelled to say "bravo" for the male performers, "brava" for the females, and "bravi" for the company? Ramon has no answer. The very question puzzles him because, as far as he's concerned, those are simply the words one uses to indicate approval in that formal, tradition-minded world. A competent audience member knows those words and the conventions that go with them and can't unlearn it all just to make things easier.
Later, Joan goes back to the Met, this time with Lisa, using tickets she'd planned to share with Ramon. The performance tears Lisa wide open. It's not, I think, that she identifies so closely with anything that's happening onstage—she can't even understand the language. It's that she finds something there that's absent everywhere else in her life: a sense of order. Of structure, maturity, and even nobility. Of roles that are understood and played out not only onstage but in the seats. She's finally among adults, and so she can be a child.