The unpredictable messiness of real life

Real life: Kenneth Lonergan's 'Margaret'

4 minute read
Paquin: The more needy, the more sexualized.
Paquin: The more needy, the more sexualized.
Often when I attend a serious movie or play, I find myself obsessing that the dialogue or plot development doesn't ring true. As a therapist for more than 30 years, I know that life is messy and unpredictable, and that nothing is ever tied up in neat packages, as too many dramas suggest.

"Happy endings" last at best for a few days, and more likely a few hours. In life the only predictable constant is change; as soon as one problem is solved, others crop up. Far too often, each of us, without realizing it, contributes to worsening situations rather than resolving them.

Still, experience, growth and maturity does bring the ability to build lives, loves and fulfillment with those who can be trusted.

Kenneth Lonergan's haunting Margaret is that rare film that depicts this reality with gripping accuracy. It's not easy to find— I wouldn't have heard about it without the recommendation of the Philadelphia film scholar Ruth Perlmutter— but I've never seen a film with more psychological honesty in the depiction of the human condition.

Studio wrangling

Margaret, filmed in 2005, was due for release in 2007. However, because of editing disputes between Lonergan (who wanted to release a film of more than three hours) and his studio and producer (Fox Searchlight Pictures and Gary Gilbert), it wasn't released until 2011, had the briefest of runs, and then disappeared.

Parts of the two-and-a-half-hour version released for public viewing appear choppy and confusing— but then, so are the lives depicted on this screen. And so is life itself.

Margaret is based on Gerald Manley Hopkins's haunting poem, Spring and Fall, written to a young child (named Margaret) to gently help her come to terms with aging and death— the "September Song" that comes to us all. Lisa Cohen, played brilliantly by the extraordinary actor Anna Paquin, lives with her divorced actress mother (played by J. Smith Cameron, Lonergan's wife) and younger brother on Manhattan's Upper Wast Side. She's a scholarship student attending an expensive private school full of hip, savvy, multicultural kids who, like Lisa, are confused and struggling to come to terms with their world, their futures and their sexuality.

Fatal accident

Lisa is excited about a forthcoming trip out west to spend time with her dad, a Santa Monica screenwriter, played by Lonergan, whose young girlfriend doesn't want any part of Lisa. In pursuit of a cowboy hat to win the affection of her physically and emotionally distant dad, Lisa inadvertently distracts a bus driver, causing a traffic accident in which a pedestrian (Allison Janney) dies in Lisa's arms. Much of the rest of the film concerns the failure of adult authority figures— parents, teachers, police, lawyers— to address Lisa's emotional needs; after all, as Lonergan shows, their own lives are also overwhelmed by conflicts and obstacles.

In her crumbling world, Lisa's acting out takes on the cover of an overtly sexualized, demanding, brilliant young woman who really wants nothing more than to be heard and understood. Emotional frailty, combined with life's desperate need for closeness and release, can overwhelm reason. This surely is true of children: The more needy and confused, the more overtly sexualized they often appear. This is true of adults as well.

The genius of Margaret is that all the characters can be understood in both their strengths and flaws, and the muddle of life is accurately portrayed. The betrayals and frailties of others experienced by Lisa are searing, and they are intensified by her father's physical distance, his ability to parent in word only, and his passive-aggressive treatment of his daughter.

Slippery slopes

Vital to the truth of this film is the camera and script's attention to everyone who touches Lisa's life. She is so bright and persistent, but like most of us she eventually confronts walls of resistance that she cannot breach.

As confused and difficult as Lisa's relationship with her mother has been, her mother (unlike Lisa's father, and despite her limitations) has been there for her daughter and son. This is the story's compensation: that, despite everything, authentic love remains and sustains.

Margaret suggests that life is raw, unpredictable, messy, unfair; and that to navigate its slippery and confusing slopes, one has to be able to learn to see straight. It also raises an underlying question: Since the struggling Lisa is portrayed as a child of relative privilege, what is the future of America's kids who lack her opportunities and advantages? And what are the future implications of this question for the rest of us?♦

To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

Margaret. A film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.

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