A few days ago, NPR interviewed Kenneth Lonergan on Margaret – his most recent movie release. Lonergan, a writer and director, is well-known for the movie “You Can Count On Me” (2000) starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, which was nominated for two Academy awards.
Margaret was filmed in 2006 but was not released until last year because of a disagreement between Lonergan and Fox Searchlight over the editing of the film: Lonergan wanted to release a longer version (2-1/2 hours) and Fox Searchlight didn’t which led to lawsuits and ultimately to delay the release of the film. The DVD was released this week and includes both versions.
Intrigued, I watched the film (the long version) and concluded the movie was the best film on adolescence (in all of its pain and drama) that I have ever seen. The film has a knock-out cast including Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Allison Janney, Michael Ealy, Kieran Caulkin, J. Smith-Cameron, and Jeannie Berlin. The scene is New York City: primarily the Upper West Side and Broadway and is quintessential New York in every aspect.
Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a 17-year old high school student who is preoccupied with her sexuality and her impact on men, including her teachers at school. While shopping for a cowboy hat to wear on an upcoming trip with her father, Lisa inadvertently distracts a bus driver (who is wearing a cowboy hat she admires) causing him to run through a red light resulting in a terrible accident in which he runs over a pedestrian played by Allison Janney. The accident is traumatic in both its implications and impact on Lisa who realizes she is partially to blame for the pedestrian’s death.
Unsure of what to do after comforting the dying woman on the street with her severed leg a few feet away, Lisa makes a quick decision to tell the police the light was green thus relieving the bus driver (played by Mark Ruffalo) of blame. This impulsive decision lays the groundwork for the next two hours of the film in which we see a narcissistic self-absorbed teenager begin to understand that everything that happens in the world is not about her or how it impacts her life.
Lisa attends a private school on the Upper West Side and lives with her actress mother (who displays the wounded nature of a parent who doesn’t understand the battleground of adolescence) and younger brother. Lisa’s parents are divorced and her father (played by Kenneth Lonergan) lives in California with his new wife, who Lisa abhors. Angry at school, angry at her mother, and angry at herself, teenage Lisa attempts to make a wrong decision right despite the bad advice and condescension she gets from the adults in her universe.
Kenneth Lonergan named the film Margaret because of a poem entitled Spring and Fall by Gerald Manley Hopkins that parallels Lisa’s experience and journey through adolescence to adulthood. The poem’s significance is that a person will see the world differently as a child than as an adult. On NPR, Lonergan explained that a young child will typically be very upset by the death of an animal on the side of the road but that most adults will choose not to look and drive by seemingly unaffected. And, yet those depths of sorrow experienced by the young never flee; they are only buried beneath the surface on the road to adulthood.
Spring and Fall by Gerald Manley Hopkins
MARGARET, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.