A review of the messy, wonderful movie "Margaret." Anna Paquin stars as a privileged New York teenager drawn into adulthood by a senseless accident.
“It is the blight man was born for
It is Margaret you mourn for.”
— Gerard Manley Hopkins
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Kenneth Lonergan’s wonderful “Margaret” gets its title not from a character, but from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, read aloud by a character in the movie. Called “Spring and Fall,” it is addressed to a child — Margaret — weeping over the change of seasons, realizing perhaps for the first time that loss is part of life, and that she is helpless to change it. That’s the theme of this sprawling movie about a Manhattan teenager named Lisa (Anna Paquin) who early in the film is witness to a terrible bus accident that she unthinkingly helped to cause. A woman (Allison Janney) dies, horribly and senselessly, and Lisa tries desperately to make sense of the tragedy, come to terms with her guilt and convince an adult to share the blame.
Filmed in 2005 but held back for many years due to legal troubles and editing delays, “Margaret” is messy but masterful; a sprawling portrait of what it means to be a bright young woman who’s realizing that the world isn’t the warm bath of acceptance that her privileged life would indicate. It’s not that Lisa’s world is a simple one: She lives with her divorced, distracted mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and has mostly just a phone relationship with her West Coast father (Lonergan). At 17, Lisa’s fascinated by her own allure, showing off her sexuality as if it’s a new car that she’s not quite sure how to drive. She’s self-absorbed and somewhat self-destructive — which, believably, doesn’t magically change after the accident — and has the fierce idealism often found in the very young.
Lonergan, a playwright whose previous movie was the equally fine “You Can Count On Me,” uses a wide canvas here: We’re constantly shown shots of crowds on the streets of New York, of the perpetual background motion and hum that the city provides. And when Lisa delves into parts of the city that she doesn’t know — a police station, a less-prosperous neighborhood where the bus driver lives, a lawyer’s office — she’s shocked to discover that she doesn’t belong, that simply being a bright and pretty young girl doesn’t change things. “We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!” rages a friend (Jeannie Berlin) of the dead woman to Lisa; the tragedy, Lisa needs to learn, wasn’t hers to own.
Though some of the characters feel peripheral and undeveloped (particularly a man played by Jean Reno, a love interest for Lisa’s mother), “Margaret” never has a false moment; you feel immersed in the worlds of some very real people, and even the fact that some of them remain ciphers feels like life itself. And Lisa, played by Paquin with a passionate, fearless honesty, is a fascinating creation: not always likable, not always admirable, a young person gazing into a frightening maturity and trying, imperfectly, to do the right thing. The film’s final scene — a moving, dialogue-free realization that the grown-up world is a place of both staggering beauty and devastating unfairness — is a work of art all by itself; ultimately, it is Lisa you mourn for.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org