Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Margaret" - An Empathetic Portrait of Empathy

Some thoughts (with minor spoilers) on Margaret after the jump:

Margaret is a gigantic mess of a movie, and one that's slightly at war with itself. At its best (which it very often is), it's an achingly human character study that rivals the best work of Ingmar Bergman in its emotional impact and its ability to translate specific experiences into something powerfully universal. That might be what makes the film's most irritating quality—and no, that's not its protagonist, much as some would like to have you believe—so off-putting. I'm speaking of the highly self-conscious attempts at grandeur that rear their head every so often: the repeated emphasis on the architecture of New York, the shots of lone helicopters and planes in the sky, and most of all the frequent use of both a distracting, overly assertive score and opera music during many moments. While opera does eventually play a key role in the narrative, that doesn't really change the fact that these elements all seem like the film trying too hard to assert its own status as an important work of cinematic art. They frustratingly clash with the beautiful naturalism of just about everything else.

It may seem odd to use the term "naturalism" in describing a film whose teenage protagonist is often given to hyper-literate analysis of everything around her (including herself). But such as the genius of Anna Paquin's performance as Lisa Cohen, and of Kenneth Lonergan's writing of her. Margaret is many things, but mostly it's a brutally honest, extraordinarily rich character study of this seventeen year old girl who understands and feels so much, yet is still given to cringe-inducing displays of self-involvement as she tries to come to grips with the implications of her actions. I've seen the word "unlikable" thrown around a lot (in reviews and various comments on the film) to describe her, and I'm sorry, but that's absolutely ridiculous to me. One of the things I most love about Paquin's work in this movie—and it's seriously one of the best performances I've ever seen—is the way she always lets you see the fundamental decency within Lisa. In one of the movie's very best scenes, someone calls her out for a particularly misjudged set of remarks, and her response is simultaneously defensive and desperate in its attempts to get the other person to realize that, in her heart, she was trying to empathize. She should just apologize, of course, but human beings—some would say teenagers and young people especially, but it's really all of us—have difficulty admitting when we're wrong. It's a remarkably complex, realistic piece of screenwriting and acting that affirms the character as someone worthy of sympathy, even as she continues to often say (and do) the wrong things.

But let's backtrack for a second, because here's the other thing: not only is this a seventeen year old we're talking about, it's a seventeen year old who's going through some really tough stuff. When Margaret begins, she doesn't seem to have much to worry about. There are her struggles with math, her friend's awkward attempts to ask her out, and her search for a hat to wear to a horseback riding excursion when she goes to visit her father. But then she notices a bus driver sporting a likely candidate on his head. She gestures at him, and he averts his eyes from the road and runs a red light, hitting a woman crossing the street. This is not a horror movie, but Lonergan stages this scene—especially the aftermath of it—in a fashion that makes it one of the most horrifying cinematic sights in recent memory: a combination of blood, pain, and fear that you can see leaving an irreversible impact on Lisa, as the woman dies right in front of her. When she repeatedly lashes out at her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) later on, it's cruel (often deliberately so), but it's also understandable that she would react this way. She's literally seen the life drain from someone's eyes. Joan can't really comprehend that, and she's also distracted with her own work in a play, which her daughter can't help but see as something trivial in the face of what's just happened. The emotions at play in these interactions—like all the emotions in Margaret—are so raw that they're truly uncomfortable to watch, but that's what makes them so darn powerful.

Life goes on for Lisa, who finds herself caught between the harsh realities of the adult world, her own guilt, and the intellectual sphere of her private school. There's a complaint to be made that Margaret is trying in trying to deal with a little too much, and it's true that (even in the extended version of the film) certain storylines don't really feel all that developed. But most of them still manage to add to the expansive emotional portrait the movie is trying to depict: that of a girl struggling with all her might to navigate this situation in a way that is moral and empathetic. She falls on her face. She lashes out. But it  all comes from a place of emotional pain, and a struggle to connect with people who either can't (her mother) or don't want to (Mark Ruffalo's bus driver) understand exactly what it means to watch someone die, and to know you're partially responsible for the person's death. Here's one of the ways in which the Bergman comparison really becomes apparent to me: the emphasis on the multitude of emotions contained on Paquin's face as she screams at her mother, or talks to a boy she plans on losing her virginity to. This is a story with some fairly vast implications about morality and maturity, but the way it's told is for the most part searingly intimate, and brilliant because of it.

As noted above, the parts of the movie that don't really work are the moments in which it tries to pull back from that intimacy and give a larger portrait of life being lived. Beyond the obnoxious music and unnecessarily showy visual elements already discussed, Margaret frequently offers brief glimpses into lives and conversations surrounding those of its principal characters: generally for only a few seconds, before the camera and sound recenter on the main subjects. It isn't a bad idea to remind us that life is something that extends far beyond the handful of characters a given film tends to focus on, and such an idea definitely has resonance for this particular story, which is largely about both Lisa and Joan grappling with things outside of their own narrow comfort zones. But still, I just don't care for how these shots tend to break up the movie's flow as a series of emotionally volatile conversations. I wish Lonergan had trusted in the depth of his screenplay and strength of the actors to convey the narrative's themes, rather than resorting to the sorts of elaborate visual flourishes that tend—at least in this instance—to have a distancing effect that's at odds with both the performances and writing. Margaret reaches for the stars in every scene, and I love that about it. But its constant need to let us know that it's doing so is its major source of issues, even more so than that somewhat overloaded script (which, beyond story issues, is also weighed down by a few too many scenes drawing parallels between classic literature and what's going on in Lisa's life).

With all that said, this is still one of the most remarkable pieces of cinema in recent memory. Its level of empathy makes it often transcendent, but more than just an empathetic work, it's a portrait of empathy itself: of the way it develops and grows when we're forced to look beyond ourselves. Not only do we understand these characters, we watch them grow to understand each other a little more: a process that, as last year's best movie (Her) pointed out to equally profound effect, is constantly ongoing. Lisa isn't a bad person, but she could be a better one. She's trying to be a better one. And isn't that what most of us are doing? Margaret challenges us to look past our initial knee-jerk response to some of the things she says and connect with that central idea. It's not always easy, but if we can, there strikes me as being tremendous hope in her journey. Forget all those movies that bill themselves as being based on some sort of inspiring true story. This right here is genuinely inspiring filmmaking.

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