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Review: Margaret (2011)

Margaret (2011)

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

Premise: A high school student (Anna Paquin) witnesses a traffic accident. Her attempt to cope with what she has seen sends her down a self-destructive path.

What Works: Margaret is a film with big ambitions and it mostly succeeds. This is primarily a coming of age story in which Lisa, a high school student played by Anna Paquin, finds that her seventeen year old conception of life is irreconcilable with the corruption, imperfection, and horror of the world around her. This is a film about that moment in which youths realize that society is run by people who are just older versions of themselves and the disillusionment and disappointment that comes with that. The film begins with a death by automobile accident in which Lisa is not only a witness but also a participant and much of the story is about her attempt to grasp her own responsibility in the accident in particular but also in the world in general. That is a big theme but the filmmakers effectively ground it with the horror of the accident and Lisa’s reaction to it. The main plotline dramatizes Lisa’s pursuit of justice as she tries to connect with the bus driver but upon being rebuffed she then aids the survivors of the accident victim with a civil suit against the bus company. Underlying all this is Lisa’s desperate attempt to make an accident mean something, which of course is oxymoronic, and admirably the film does not validate the false hopes of the main character (and probably much of the audience), relieving her guilt and letting her off the hook. In that respect, Margaret is a smart and insightful indictment of self-pity and the selfish motives that underlie a lot of do-gooding. The filmmakers expound on this through subplots that flesh out the world she lives in and it connects the underlying questions exposed by the accident with broader issues. Margaret includes several scenes in school in which Lisa discusses international politics with her classmates, especially issues relating to terrorism and counterterrorism and the discussions question the way in which we talk about the world and what responsibility we have, if any, to local and global communities. The other major subplot is Lisa’s troubled home life; her parents are divorced and her mother is largely absent. These scenes also allow for a lot of nuance; Lisa is not always a likeable character and the film does not try to excuse her actions but it does try to make the viewer understand them. Her troubled relationship with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) has a lot of reality to it and the arc of their relationship gives the film an ending in which the issues of guilt and responsibility can finally be acknowledged.

What Doesn’t: Clocking in at over two hours, Margaret is long winded and its story gets unwieldy. This is a film with a lot of narrative strands and some are done better than others. The relationship between Lisa and a teacher played by Matt Damon is incomplete and it takes some turns that are unexpected and a little incredible. Also, Margaret has a preponderance of high profile actors in supporting roles including Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, and Matthew Broderick. This becomes distracting as their presence suggests that the audience ought to see more from them than we do. 

DVD extras: There are two version of Margaret: a 150 minute version and a 186 minute director’s cut. Of the two the director’s cut is the preferable version. The Blu-ray edition includes both versions of the film.

Bottom Line: Margaret is the rare film that strives for big things and manages to get there, at least in moments. Despite its length, the director’s cut is worth seeking out and it is a bold attempt to deal with contemporary life in a sophisticated way. 

Episode: #406 (September 23, 2012)