My beloved Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted the filmmaker and some of the cast of Margaret during its Film Comment Selects festival held February 17 to March 1, 2012. (Check out my article about the screening of James Franco’s film, My Own Private River, and my piece about the Q&A with the cast of Wanderlust during this fest.)
Margaret has been in the news quite a bit because it has been plagued by lawsuits and held up from release since it was shot in 2005. The true saga remains a mystery because writer/director/actor Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York, Analyze This) has refused to tell the whole story. At Lincoln Center, he simply said that most of what has been reported has been inaccurate.
But let’s concentrate on the results. Criticism has been mixed regarding Margaret. Some have called it unfocused, “a 2-1/2-hour mess.” I disagree with this criticism and have remained haunted by the film since I saw it more than a week ago.
Since the protagonist is a teenage girl, played brilliantly in my opinion by Anna Paquin (The Piano, True Blood), and since I once was a teenage girl, the narrative strikes me as absolutely appropriate. Lonergan takes us on a journey with this girl after she suffers a horrific trauma. The haphazard, surprising events that follow feel very true to life. It’s an account of a young person trying to deal with something inconceivable, and she understandably bounces off the walls in the process.
Margaret reminded me of another movie – a favorite of mine – that most people don’t know, Twelve and Holding, which was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in 2007. In that movie, a group of 12-year-olds cope in destructive ways with the death of a friend.
“What inspired this film was a story told to me by a girl I knew in high school,” Lonergan said. He was moved by the idea that someone so young was forced to deal with something so adult. The movie is set in New York, and Paquin plays a privileged, intelligent teen who is witness to a terrible accident, for which she feels partially responsible.
Other actors playing main characters in the film include Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, and J. Smith Cameron, who all attended the screening and Q&A. Paquin, Matt Damon, and Mark Ruffalo were absent at Lincoln Center (much to my disappointment). Lonergan, by the way, plays Paquin’s absentee father.
It turns out that Broderick and Lonergan went to high school together, and one of the classroom arguments depicted in the film really happened. A scene in which Paquin’s character and her friend smoke pot while sitting on a rock in Central Park is also apparently a true-to-life scenario from the men’s high school days. “That was us,” Lonergan said.
French actor Jean Reno was very pleased to be involved with the production. Rather than the heavies he often plays in American movies, he portrays a somewhat romantic character in this film. “I have not often scripts in my hand of that quality,” Reno said of Margaret, in slightly broken English.
“Margaret” is not, by the way, the title character of the film. Paquin’s character is actually named Lisa. “Margaret” refers to a name mentioned in a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins that is evoked toward the end of the movie. “That’s one of the three poems I know,” Lonergan chuckled. “It seemed to me to be essentially what the script was about.” The poem begins: “Margaret, are you grieving, Over Goldengrove unleaving?”
Grief and guilt make us do strange things that don’t always follow a clean and clear narrative thread. If you find heart-wrenching accounts of real human drama cathartic and interesting, see Margaret. If you’re like me, it will stay with you for a long time.