“Margaret” (2011)

I spent 5½ hours this weekend watching both the theatrical and extended versions of Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s emotional epic about a high-school student who’s partly responsible for a fatal street accident, and then innocently—or at least spontaneously—lies to the police about what happened. It’s a detailed, unpredictable work with several brilliant moments, along with a handful of misjudged scenes and a couple of ideas left hanging in midair. Still, Lonergan was talking about something real.

Margaret is mostly about our need for a perspective, or a state of consciousness, that’s viable in today’s world. The task has always been a prickly one, but now, when things sometimes feels like they really are verging on the apocalyptic (and whose perils we’re all, to one degree or another, responsible for creating), dealing with reality while not denying our feelings about it is fast becoming a critical skill. The accident precipitating Lisa’s crisis occurs perhaps 15 minutes into the movie—just enough time to establish her as pampered and headstrong—and the film’s best stretch comes in its immediate aftermath, when she tries to continue her usual routine with the tragedy percolating just behind her eyes. Eventually her guilt and confusion cause her to act out (and lash out) in a number of directions—at her well-meaning but distracted mother, as well as at the cops, her teachers and friends. (Anna Paquin’s eruptions are remarkable for the subtle variations she rings on them based on which party Lisa is dealing with at the time.) As she tries to find the right scale for her distress, her search is mirrored by life around her: a mockingly light play which her mother is starring in, a classmate whose self-righteousness is a match for her own, and ultimately by a  glowing performance of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman. The latter may be a register too high for anyone’s sense of humility to stay healthy, but the opera winds up offering Lisa the toehold that she desperately needs.

Margaret’s free-floating anxiety is part of the global, inclusive consciousness that’s relatively new to movies—the cinema of Haneke and Akin and Iñárritu. Though it contains a running argument about the Jews, the Arabs and American meddling in the Middle East, it’s less about 9/11 than the fabric of modern life, particularly in New York City, whose inhabitants have always been peculiarly attuned to what their neighbors were doing, and whose lives really became enmeshed in the wake of the attacks. Margaret’s signature image is the crowd shot—a horde of pedestrians filling the sidewalks, or a line of taxis stretching to the horizon at twilight—that give us some idea of the multiplicity of perspectives and options available both to Lisa and to us. Which road is the right one? What Margaret does well is dramatize how sticky that question has finally become. Finding a path that’s coherent, comfortable and morally righteous, all at the same time…? Well, we should just forget it, for clearly it can’t be done. And yet no other choice is presenting itself—not to Lisa, and certainly not to us.

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