Margaret Review: Do The Right Thing

MARGARET (15): On General Release Friday 2nd December

Margaret is a sprawling (i.e. very long) post 9/11 message from director/writer Kenneth Lonergan, that takes a close look at growing up in the world today and what you inevitably learn when you try and do the right thing.

17-year-old New York City high-schooler Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) inadvertently causes a bus accident when she distracts the driver (Mark Ruffalo), and it results in a woman’s death. As she and the victim’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin) try to set things right, she learns that the real world is full of injustice and compromise and she takes her frustrations out on her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and teachers (Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick).

No character is actually named Margaret, but the title is derived instead from the Gerard Hopkins poem Spring and Fall, in which he speaks to a young girl, Margaret, about the disillusions that come with losing innocence. Once Matthew Broderick reads some of this poem halfway through the film, you begin to realize what Lonergan is going for. As Lisa struggles to atone for her mistake, she comes to realise that in the real world there is no room for her youthful ideals.

The message is powerful and Lisa’s emotional outbursts are ultimately what keep the movie going during the inhumane run time but it would be much stronger if the movie had come out in 2005 when it was first filmed and more immediately after 9/11. The post-twin towers message is made clear with sweeping shots of the Manhattan skyline and Lisa’s history class debates terrorism so the idea isn’t completely lost, but a more topical focus would have been an improvement

Kenneth Lonergan, who makes a cameo as Lisa’s father, is unafraid in his first directorial stint since 2000. He gratuitously portrays the accident, Lisa losing her virginity and, importantly, the harsh realities of the real world. Unfortunately included in his unabashed direction comes the decision to let the movie go on for two and a half hours, a death wish for any movie and a major drawback here.

There are powerful moments of near-genius for Lonergan, who clearly has insightful observations to make about our relationships with one another, but it seems like he tries to tackle too much and ultimately, very little happens. Maybe the underdeveloped plot is intentional, as Lonergan does seem preoccupied with exploring Lisa’s emotional relationships, but 150 minutes is too much time to simply examine personalities.

Anna Paquin (who isn’t very convincing as a 17-year-old even in 2005) is impressive in the deceptively straight-forward role of an overly dramatic teen and J. Smith-Cameron draws on real-life experience to portray her successful stage actress mother. However, the best acting comes from the side characters, with Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Jeannie Berlin and Kieran Culkin all delivering subtly brilliant performances.

This is impressive as the study of a character that may be a bit over the top, but that we can all relate to nonetheless. Lonergan is too ambitious in his story, but in a movie about resisting the compromises we are all sometimes forced to make, at least he is not selling himself short. If you think you can sit through it, Margaret is worth a watch but don’t feel like you’re missing out if you can’t.