Margaret is a movie full of ideas. Very much post-9/11, harboring a rich and terrifying history of legal troubles, it’s a movie about parents and children (surrogate mothers, absent fathers), and growing up in a new America, or maybe more specifically, a new New York.
One thing that’s startling about Margaret is how much it makes one aware of the speed at which the world changes. The film was to be released in 2007. A long, often told story later, and it’s released in 2011. The film looks, sounds, and feels like 2007 and very much not like 2011. It feels a far cry from 2017.
Kenneth Lonergan takes his time in this film (that despite some scenes that were obviously cut down, and others that feel like they might be missing entirely). He packs it with slow-motion moments in the streets of NY, like this one, where Lisa (Anna Paquin) starts in the foreground and walks into a wide shot as the camera zooms out.
We lose her in the crowd and then there’s a dramatic, vertiginous tilt up to the skyscrapers overhead:
Couple that with other slow-motion shots like these-
-and you get not only a slice of life, but crowded frames, teeming with people. That first sequence is notable for its tilt for obvious reasons. But its not just a reflection back on a terrorist attack. It’s also the anonymity of the city and the vast, unreachable distance up above.
That last photo above shows Lisa being catcalled by a few young men who never appear in the film again. It’s not Lonergan (who also wrote the script) making a racial commentary (though there are several racially charged conversations in here), or saying anything direct about Lisa. Instead, as with everything in the film, there’s a clash of culture and backgrounds. There’s violence to that slow-motion image. Lisa has to really bend and twist to get around and past these guys and that type of collision is everywhere in Margaret.
Like Manchester by the Sea, Margaret is also funny. The funniest scene, I think, concerns one of Lisa’s teachers, John (Matthew Broderick). He gets in an argument with a student about Shakespeare and is so rattled by the student’s insistent on an existential point that he has to sip his orange juice (from a cardboard box and with a straw) and take a frustrated bite from a sandwich:
He looks like such a little kid. It’s hilarious. But it’s also a good scene. The aggression that comes out in the classroom – sometimes directly related to events at the time, other times not – feels new.
Much of the film revolves around Lisa’s witnessing of a bus accident. The scene where she goes to confront the driver, played by Mark Ruffalo, starts in the medium wide below and then cuts across the street to the wide:
The second shot is one of the rare exterior wides that feels empty, maybe simply because of the changed neighborhood, perhaps to echo the settled emotion before the confrontation. Both have that prominent American flag, which is often seen in the movie.
I’m pretty sure this is the best performance I’ve ever seen Matt Damon give.
His Mr. Aaron is subtle and conflicted (as in the really amazing scene above). There’s another fantastic scene with him at the end of the film where he’s clearly struggling with how to handle a delicate conversation. That struggle is visible.
Lonergan’s observance of very human dialogue is the strongest part of Margaret. I love the scene where Lisa’s mom Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) meets the Emily (Jeannie Berlin), with whom Lisa has been working on a lawsuit. Lisa uncharacteristically flatters her mom. It’s such a human tendency – not wanting to talk about the person’s achievements 1-on-1, but in the company of another person it’s entirely different.