This is a tricky review to write because, if we were chatting informally, I would tell you that Margaret was a thought provoking, well-written piece of cinematic literature. But if you don’t like that sort of thing, you might want to skip it. And if you asked what it was about, I’d probably shrug and say “growing up and perspective,” but because you’re coming here to get more of a sense of the movie than my off-handed comments like “figure it out yourself,” that’s not going to cut it.

Here, I’m going to tell you what this movie is about in terms of plot and character, and then get to the meaty stuff, the heart of what this film is about, and tell you why you should see it, despite the running time (149 minutes), the lack of traditional structure (that I found rambling and unfocused), and the fact that it’s about a teenage girl (which might sound unappealing but shouldn’t dissuade you). Ready?

So what is it about? A teenage girl living in New York City, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), is witness to a bus accident when the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), distracted by Lisa’s frantic waving, runs a red light. In running the red light, the driver runs over a woman, Monica Patterson (Allison Janney), and, while waiting for an ambulance that shows up too late, Lisa holds onto her as she dies. In the police investigation immediately following, Lisa and the bus driver share a look at the scene and Lisa lies and tells the policeman the light was green, in part to save the driver’s job and in part to assuage her own guilt that she was a responsible party in this senseless accident.

The aftermath of the accident and Lisa’s reactions make up the bulk of this film. It explores her relationships with her estranged parents — her egotistical and insecure actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron), and her father, who is distant both emotionally and in mileage (he lives in California). Just after the accident, Lisa is unfocused and unsure how to deal with her feelings of helplessness and guilt from lying to the police. When she asks her parents and teachers and other trusted adults whether she should rectify her lie, the answers they give her are inconclusive or unsatisfactory. Her mother tells her to think about the bus driver’s family and livelihood before she does so. Her father is too distracted with Lisa’s stepmother and his own life, and general emotional distance to give her any advice besides she should do the right thing. Her teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon) is a sympathetic ear, but doesn’t offer much besides that.

Anguished by the lack of clear answers in the world, Lisa turns to drugs and boys to find an outlet for her emotions, or at least a way to forget them for a short time. It is only when she creates her own plan of action – she decides to attend Monica’s funeral — and meets Emily (Jeannie Berlin), Monica’s friend, that Lisa finds focus. Lisa confronts the bus driver and, when she sees he’s totally unrepentant and doesn’t acknowledge that he ran a red light, she teams up with Emily to pursue justice for the accident via the legal system and punish the bus driver. These actions help Lisa create meaning from a senseless accident, but, more than that, serve as a backdrop for her first foray into adulthood.

Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed one of my favorite movies of the 21st Century, You Can Count on Me, so I wasn’t shocked that I enjoyed this film. The dialogue is amazing. If you’re interested in hearing realistic dialogue and insanely fleshed out characters, stop reading now and head to the theatre. Lonergan is masterful with dialogue, and at some points I found myself anticipating the next line a character would say, not because scenes were predictable, but because the characters were so clearly their own people with own unique voices, even characters (like Dave the Lawyer – (Michael Ealy) ) who were in only a couple scenes. Unfortunately, Lonergan’s mastery of dialogue and character was sometimes overshadowed by the unfocused nature of the film’s structure and slightly haphazard cutting of scenes themselves.

More than once, I thought the film was heading into a third act when we were really in the middle of the second. The story took on many dimensions and had many stages, so maybe a traditional three-act structure isn’t the best way to dissect it, but nonetheless, that’s the tool we have at our disposal. While I’m not one to complain about not knowing where a story is going, it often felt like I was freefalling into this film, and Lonergan was unsure about when to pull the ripcord and release the parachute. At the very least, when I’m in a movie, I want to feel led, or at least as if I’m in the hands of a person who knows where his story is going.

While, by the end, I felt this way, it took a long time to get to that place, and the feeling of “Where is he taking me?” in a confused way, not anticipatory, was overwhelming. On that note, the film was 150 minutes long. Two and a half hours is a long time to sit around, feeling like you’re lost in the woods with someone who said he knew where he was going. I’m not one to refuse to see a movie if it’s long, but this movie felt long and dragged out. In retrospect, however, I don’t know what I would cut out of the movie. The way it ended, resolved issues without tying them up into a neat bow, and it didn’t drag anything out. I also didn’t feel like any issue was over-explored. Really, the problem, I think, lies in the fact that Lonergan’s script is a bit of a structural mess. And, based on awkward edits, many scenes were cut in the middle, right before someone else was going to begin speaking again (you could even see people open their mouths to start right before the cuts).

While Anna Paquin’s performance was jumpy and uneven at times, she was able to carry the film and keep interest as a main character. Most of the rest of the performances were not memorable, but the exception to that was J. Smith Cameron. She stole the show as Lisa’s insecure mother, Joan, whose career is blossoming and family life is falling apart simultaneously. She was consistent and wore her emotions and character on her sleeve. I believed her emotional cracks and outbursts of emotion, which could have easily been overwrought, loud, and ingenuine, but each time I looked at her face, I saw the hurt, anguish, and pain of trying to understand and connect with her daughter while keeping a hold of her social life and flourishing career.

And I would truly be remiss if I didn’t mention the score. Nico Muhly, a young, super talented composer, took charge of this score. The music is full of sturm and drung; it’s high drama when we are outside of a scene, and low key and mood enhancing when we are with the characters. The contrast is beautiful and the score itself was immensely pleasant to listen to. There are several non-diegetic interludes in the movie that would have been a bore if Muhly’s score wasn’t playing over them, and I’d be happy to listen to this music in a context outside the movie.

So that’s the story, but Margaret is about more than just that; it’s about how everyone’s perspective is corrupted by their own motivations and life experiences. The best example of this is seen at the scene of the accident. When the police ask Lisa whether the stoplight at the intersection of the accident was red, yellow, or green, she meets the bus driver’s eyes before she answers. She says, “Green.” The light, as we saw it, was red. Later, when she confronts the bus driver about the accident, the bus driver insists that the light actually was green and that he and Lisa never shared a look. Lisa (and the audience) is dumbfounded – she saw that look he gave her, but the thing is that the bus driver might never have seen her, and, he might have been so distracted that the last time he saw that light, it was green, so it remained green to him. This idea of flawed perspective, of there being no obvious answer, is upsetting to Lisa and a huge part of her character’s development and growth.

To expand on this theme of perspective, Lonergan included several seemingly non-sequitur discussions in the setting of Lisa’s social studies classroom, about whether the Arab terrorists are categorically good or bad, whether the United States is to blame for perpetrating capitalism on the world and invading Iraq, and other relevant political issues. These “non-sequitur” scenes aren’t – they’re put into the film to expand upon the themes being discussed, and, in doing so, create a roundness and reality to an otherwise potentially flat narrative. These arguments go in circles, without any conclusions or any agenda, except the point that each person’s perspective will shape their views and thoughts. It is with this theme that we see Lisa struggle against – in these arguments, she’s desperate to have everyone agree with her, and desperate to shut the opposition up, to have things wrapped up in a neat little bow. Just as, in the classroom, where she is told that the world isn’t black and white, in her real life situations, she discovers that she can’t have things wrapped up neatly, that relationships and incidents, and even the law, are complicated. What is the right thing to her isn’t the right thing to everyone else. It’s a hard thing to come to terms to, but I think it’s a hugely relatable piece of growing up set in the midst of an interesting story. Toward the end of the movie, Lisa gets it. She tells her mom flatly and matter of factly that people are so disconnected. As if to prove her point, Lisa’s mom, Joan, takes it personally and pleads with Lisa that she has been trying to connect with her. Lisa says she means it in general and the conversation ends harshly and abruptly because of the loss of perspective.

So now the question I know you all are wondering about – who is Margaret and why is the film titled that? The title comes from the poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poem is recited in the film, in the context of Lisa’s English class, by her teacher  John (Matthew Broderick), who, unfortunately, is seemingly in the movie just to deliver passages of literary relevance.

 

Márgarét, are you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves, líke the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah!  ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

The poem is about mourning and loss. More literally, it discusses how the yearly defoliation of trees is devastating to a young child, but as you grow older you gain perspective (there’s that word again) from having to face things far more tragic than that initial loss. And even though it’s good to have this adult perspective, growing up and growing hardened is yet another thing to take time to feel sad about. And this is a direct comment on the journey Lisa is going through, because ultimately, this movie is about growing up, about the struggle to gain independence, about making your own decisions, about there not being concrete answers to problems, and about that even when you fight and try your hardest, the world isn’t always fair.  In Margaret, Lisa learns these cold truths. The audience feels her anxiety, pain, separation, triumph, and frustration. And, forgetting the length, and forgetting the pace, and even, for some of you, forgetting that this movie is about a 17-year old girl, this is one of the rare films out there that draws you into a world, draws you into a character, and tells an interesting story about events and people that feel real, whole, and have lives beyond the screen. And I don’t say this because I have been a 17-year old girl (although I have), but because the growing pains Lisa is feeling are universal, this is a movie that anyone can enjoy and anyone can relate to, and you’ll come out of the theatre thinking about it, and have it pop up in your mind days later. So take a friend to see Margaret, sit back, and enjoy the next two and a half hours. You’ll be glad you did. On the other hand…that’s just my corrupt perspective.