Margaret is a pointless drama starring Anna Paquin that has been on the shelf for over five years. After sitting through this bleak two-and-half-hour melodrama surrounding a bright but antagonistic teen suffering growing pains, I am left wondering why filmmakers bothered to take it down.
Director/writer Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) filmed Margaret in 2005, and since then numerous editors have been recruited to try and shape it up. By his own admission, Margaret (now in theaters) is still not the film he intended. Perhaps Lonergan is trying to distance himself from what is simply a poorly edited and pretentious drama with an underutilized supporting cast.
And in an unfortunate twist, instead of utilizing the likes of Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo, it is Paquin’s one-note performance that monopolizes the majority of the film. She plays Lisa Cohen, a privileged teen living in New York City who experiences a loss of innocence, both literally and figuratively, after witnessing a bus running over a woman.
Lisa is an outspoken, volatile New York teen. Her intelligence makes her a force to be reckoned with, and her unsteady relationship with her actress mother and distant father, who are divorced, add plenty of emotional unpredictability into her life.
While out shopping one afternoon, she unintentionally distracts a bus driver (Ruffalo) and he runs a red light, consequently mowing over a woman crossing the street. Lisa not only witnesses the whole event, but holds the woman in her arms as she dies a very painful death.
This is the catalyst for a rough summer for Lisa, as she lies to the police about the light being green, then regrets her decision. When she starts investigating the life of the victim, and even goes to her funeral and gets in touch with her best friend, Lisa finds herself unable to keep the truth of the incident to herself. Not only does she feel responsible, but she knows the bus driver is responsible as well and she wants him to face the consequences.
Lisa and the victim’s best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) set about on a campaign to see justice done, even taking the case to the courts. All this emotional upheaval causes Lisa’s relationship with her family to devolve, and her own world view is shaken.
The title of the film is referencing a poem about a young girl’s passing fancies and the loss of innocence. The film does center on Lisa’s emotional struggles and her painful maturation, but there is little that is subtle in Lonergan’s attack of the subject matter. Lisa goes about losing her innocence in a carefully orchestrated and planned way, and her precociousness and changeability is so heavy-handed it borders on schizophrenic.
As Lisa spirals down, she is increasingly confrontational and belligerent. This means there are plenty of scenes of verbal conflict and heated disagreement; except instead of building anything substantive in the story, these screaming scenes go on far too long, and become uncomfortably awkward and gratuitous.
If edited correctly, and limited to a certain amount of time and verbosity, those “shouting match” scenes could have been very effective and upped the drama/tension. Instead they began to lose there effectiveness as audiences became deadened to Paquin’s grating screech, and the “conversations” simply circled maddeningly.
The artistry of the film, or the attempted artistry, comes across as pretentious and boring. Lonergan relies heavily on slow-motion shots of crowded city streets that stretch on interminably, accompanied by a dramatic orchestral score. The wide camera pan of the New York cityscape and Central Park also pop up often, and without having any purpose or adding any artistic merit.
Particularly in the second half of the film, the sense of disorganization becomes almost overwhelming. Not only is Lisa’s character all over the place, but all these subplots and side stories pop up. Very few of them are actually addressed or tied up at the end, and some scenes are even confusing and feel like they were nonsensically edited in (perhaps years later).
Paquin’s performance in Margaret convinced me that she really isn’t a great actress. Even those who appreciate her character on HBO’s popular True Blood (must be the incredibly accurate southern accent) will have to concede that her Lisa is just an over-acted, screeching teen who is as unlikable as she is loud. Paquin nailed one or two emotions, and then audiences got treated to those two looks (in different venues) throughout the movie. And though I think some real sympathy could have been built for Lisa’s character, Paquin’s peformance was so flat the character simply remained obnoxious and flighty.
Ruffalo played a small role, but as usual his understated style shown through the messy drama of the film. Damon had a small role as one of Lisa’s private school teachers, and he gave a measured performance that wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Jean Reno, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Broderick and Allison Janney all had small roles, and made up the main part of the talented but underutilized supporting cast.
Maragaret ended up being directionless and bleak. It went on far too long, and the editing was disorganized and sometimes jarring, not to mention the senseless subplots thrown in and then dumped without resolution. Margaret had an unsatisfying whimper of an ending that hardly justified the two plus hours of screaming/crying drama, and its supposed artistic merit remains a mystery to me.