Margaret (2011)-Looking Back at Lonergan

After experiencing the INTENSE and perceptive meditation on grief that was Manchester by the Sea, I had to go back and view some of Lonergan’s earlier work. I went directly backwards in order here, to 2011’s Margaret, saving Lonergan’s Oscar-nominated You Can Count on Me (2000) for last (and if it’s as good as the two I’ve seen, I’m going to have to start working my way through his scripts while I wait impatiently for his next film).

It’s hard to see how anything could overwhelm a film as big and sweeping as this one, but going into it I not only had to contend with high expectations after Lonergan’s latest, but also with choosing a version of it to watch. You see, you are bound–if you try to read anything about the film–to come across a discussion of the lengthy distribution battle that accompanied the making of the film (Here’s a thorough one if you’re interested) and resulted in multiple editorial cuts.

Without going into too much detail (because, seriously, the film is great and I don’t want to distract from it too much), I will just say that, as consequence of a disagreement between Lonergan and one of his producers over editing, there are as many as 4 cuts of the film (the “Peggy cut” edited by a hire of the disgruntled producer, the “Scorsese cut,” the “Lonergan cut,” and an extended cut also edited by Lonergan). Because of protracted disputes, the film did not exactly get the introduction to the world it deserved. Who knows how it would have fared if it didn’t take so long to be born (It only grossed $46, 495 in the U.S. box office; it cost $12-14 million to make).

After some research, my boyfriend and I decided to watch the 150 minutes Lonergan cut. It seemed to be a safe bet, something directly influenced by Lonergan without the extra 40 minutes of the extended cut.

Like in Manchester, there is an incredible deftness to the way Lonergan navigates the personalities and worlds of his characters. Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, the film’s all-too-relatable teenage lead (not Margaret, which is simply the name of a poem read out loud in one of Lisa’s classes). After getting tangled up in a gruesome accident, the film follows Lisa as she attempts to come to terms with–and atone for–her role in it.

It’s interesting to imagine what Paquin’s career trajectory would have looked like had the film earned the visibility it deserved. Her earnest portrayal of a young adult is arresting;, I couldn’t look away from her face, despite the big city looming around her, intent on proclaiming how little and insignificant Lisa is in contrast to how big her emotions make her feel. It’s a quality I find alluring in an actress (and why, despite my reluctance, I love watching Kristen Stewart on screen).

In Paquin’s quicksilver delivery of her lines is all the naive assurance, carefree passion, and self-centredness that to me characterizes what it is like to be a teenage girl. It is her flippant attitude that initiates the film’s tragedy, but she storms on ahead in a personal crusade to define how mistakes are to be atoned for, damned be anyone who feels different.

It is particularly interesting that a girl so concerned with consequences is so immune to the idea that her own actions have them.In her guilt, Lisa lashes out at anyone who dares get close to her; she seems to think that her personal brush with trauma absolves her of the responsibility to recognize other people’s feelings. She leads on a close friend (a young John Gallagher Jr., pre-Newsroom) who has romantic feelings for her while pursuing another boy (Rory Culkin) who is already in a relationship. She abandons her best friend. She torments her mother. In one fantastic scene she reimagines herself in a starring role in someone’s death. She even tries to engage her teacher (Matt Damon) in an inappropriate relationship.

While her mother (Lonergan’s real-life wife, J. Smith-Cameron) seems to channel the tension in her own life into electrifying performances on stage, Lisa uses the scraps of her life to mount her own dramatic production.

Likewise, somehow Lonergan again excels at finding the deeply compelling in the incredibly ordinary. Despite the film’s long run time and inclusion of a huge array of daily events, I was captivated. Each scene of the movie gives the audience another piece of a fully conceived world. One notable scene involves an argument between Lisa and her mother that takes place in their tiny apartment. The back and forth between the two gave me PTSD flashbacks to my own tempestuous teenage years. When the exchange ends, I suddenly realized I had been all tensed up. Here is a man who has captured the essence of a mother daughter relationship.

The audience is drawn into the inner turmoil that Lisa projects into every scene she occupies, from her loud unyielding debates with other students to her confrontation with a bus driver who was also involved in the film’s initiatory incident. She refuses to back down when others’ opinions differ from her own, not understanding how someone can feel different than her when she feels so strongly about and sure of her own perspective.

Lonergan counters Lias’s solipsism by engulfing her in the crowds of New York City, drawing back with the camera to give a sense of smallness to his character. The film ends on a similar note, beginning with a close up of Lisa as she watches an Opera at the Met, switching to various closeups of the members of the rest of the audience, and zooming out to show the audience en masse before returning to linger on Lisa’s face. Lonergan has remarked that this tactic is one reason the film wouldn’t work as a play; images of the city are essential to the story.

One can see why Lisa imagines the world to be revolving around her: she wills her life-changing brush with death to seem big and central because what does it mean if something so bad can happen so unexpectedly and the world just keeps going like nothing happened? While I found Lisa to be an unsympathetic character–and even got into an argument with my boyfriend over her (in my opinion) spiteful and misguided motive for chasing after justice–Margaret is another triumph of personal tragedy by Lonergan.

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