Margaret, a masterpiece?

To be 17 again. What a nightmare that would be. Teenagers, through no fault of their own, are generally awful people. By 17, you’d think the worse would be over but watching Kenneth Lonergan’s much ballyhooed Margaret yesterday confirmed for me that sometimes, the worst is yet to come.

First, though, a few notes on Margaret’s production:

Last month, Joel Levell for The New York Times Magazine wrote a pretty breathless piece of sycophancy about Margaret, the so-called masterpiece from critic darling Kenneth Lonergan that no one got to see because issues over whittling down the originally three hour long film to a more manageable 150 minutes were too much to bear. The film, shot in 2005–a lifetime ago, you’ll discover if you watch, was finally released for public consumption last year, but Longeran was so disappointed by that version that, encouraged by a few film critics who clamored for the release of the real thing, ‘ Lonergan went ahead and screened the near-three hour version, soon to come in DVD form, at New York’s Landmark Theater for critics and the public this past Monday.

The whole drama surrounding the film is a little much. If you look at the New York Times Magazine piece, you’ll see a photo of Lonergan, looking woefully forlorn in a navy green rain coat. Poor Kenny couldn’t get his movie made the way he wanted it. Like I said, a bit much.

Even with only the truncated version as reference, a number of prominent critics hailed this movie as the best of the decade. You may have heard of some of them, Roger Ebert from The Chicago Sun Times, Richard Brody, the other other critic at the New Yorker, Mary Pols from Time magazine.

New York magazine was perhaps the simplest in its praise. “A Classic, Finally” read the headline on their homepage yesterday, below  a picture of a young-looking Anna Paquin.

The praise is not unjustified. It’s a tad overblown but that’s because film critics tend to become easily infatuated with films about New York, and especially films that remind them of themselves.

There is no actual Margaret in the movie. Anna Paquin, who pretty much proves (in case there was any doubt) that she is a formidable actor, fully deserving of that Oscar she won when she was 10, plays Lisa Cohen, a smart, stubborn,  17-year-old native New Yorker who’s involved in a fatal bus accident and spends the rest of the film dealing with the consequences in various, equivocating ways.

It’s an ambitious film. I think that’s probably why the term ‘masterpiece’ or ‘masterwork’ has been applied to it so much. It’s set in immediate, post 9/11 New York, the city is still smarting, the country is involved in two wars in the Middle East, Bush is a highly unpopular president. There’s a tenseness that the film manages to capture. Lisa goes to a fancy private school, a school based off the Stuyvesant model, where the kids are all smart, mostly white, mostly Jewish and have debates about the popular issues of the day, speaking with the kind of passion that smart naive kids who have always been told that they are smart have. In the midst of the ostensible drama, the film also addresses with great pathos, the tensions of mother-daughter relationships, the awkwardness of losing one’s virginity, aging, divorce, anti-semitism, opera and acting. It touches upon these things in a sprawling fashion, somewhat haphazardly but always with uncommon subtlety. The dialogue is unflinching and it’s really through watching this film, that the flaws of a movie like Take This Waltz become even more glaring. Lonergan has a preternatural way of writing dialogue that manages to highlight a tension under the surface, but without the obvious metaphorical babblespeak of a film like Sarah Polley’s.

Margaret is certainly helped by its fantastic actors. Anna Paquin is phenomenal, inhabiting this rather selfish, confused, highly emotional teenager with such force, I hated Lisa compulsively and irrationally. J. Smith Cameron plays Lisa’s mother, and she, too, is great. Matt Damon, still Bourne-trilogy fit, Matthew Broderick, Michael Ealy(!), Mark Ruffalo, Rosemarie DeWitt and Kieran Culkin (who has really filled out) are also part of the stellar cast.

Is it a masterpiece? Let’s say no, but it’s still worth watching.


One Comment on “Margaret, a masterpiece?”

  1. Liz says:

    does she really kiss her teacher (or her teacher kiss her)? bleh.

    still, you’ve got me curious.

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