This fascinating film by New York playwright Kenneth Lonergan is about growing up, life and death, and how we handle the choices we make in between.
It begins with a series of slow-motion shots – pedestrians, traffic, shoppers – in the busy streets of Manhattan. A flamenco guitar tune plays along to the sluggish images of everyday life. The drawn-out movements of the people in the montage, underpinned by such intense, beautiful music seems to highlight an underlying theme of the film: we move through life at a certain pace, but there is always the potential for a dramatic upset, the unknown.
The film centres on 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin of True Blood fame), a precocious Upper West Side school girl who – like many 17-year-old schoolgirls (and your reviewer was certainly no exception) – is consumed with her immediate world, and not much else.
But early on in the film, Lisa’s world is turned upside down when she is involved in a horrific bus accident. She is flirting and playfully distracting a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), when he takes his eyes off the wheel and ploughs into an unsuspecting woman crossing the road. Drama suddenly crashes into Lisa’s life.
Consumed with guilt, but not knowing how to handle the situation, Lisa becomes completely immersed in the drama. Unfortunately her mother, Joan (Lonergan’s wife, J. Smith-Cameron) is busy with her own life, a new play (she is a stage actress) and a new boyfriend. She cannot see the massive impact that the accident has had on Lisa, and that her daughter is emotionally incapable of dealing with it properly.
The acting is very interesting in this film. There are scenes with extended dialogue where the actors are having believable conversations, they stumble over words, and the film has an authentic documentary feel. Paquin does a great job with her character. Lisa is a bit all over the place, sometimes you feel sorry for her, other times she is frustrating, but it all makes her very intriguing.
The storyline is also unusual. We see this horrible thing happen to Lisa, but the movie does not only look at how she deals with that, it shows many other facets of her life. Her relationship with her estranged father, her growing interest in boys and sex, and her strained relationship with her mother. In one way, it is a coming of age story. As Lonergan told The New Yorker, there was an “idea of trying to tell the story of what happens to Lisa while not dropping the rest of her life out of the film”.
Literary references throughout the film act as a way of drawing depth and meaning to Lisa’s understanding of the accident. She struggles to articulate how she feels to other characters, but it is clear that she has a whole new understanding of the suddenness of death. Her English teacher John Van Tassel (Matthew Broderick) is teaching the class about King Lear, but it is from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Spring and Fall: to a Young Child, that the film gets its name. The referenced line reads: “Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; And yet you will weep and know why […] It is Margaret you mourn for.” In her own bizarre way, Lisa is mourning for the woman in the accident, a woman she didn’t know.
Not only is it such a great – yet tragic – story, it is told in such a compelling way. It hosts a bevy of stars (those mentioned above, as well as Matt Damon, Alison Janney, Jean Reno and Kieren Culkin, brother of Macaulay), but they all inhabit their roles unassumingly. They are there for their talent, not as a selling point. A bizarre, emotional film with elements of black humour, Margaret is an intense ride, but well worth it.
by Bridget Fitzgerald
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