As many of you know, In Contention is firmly set in the #TeamMargaret camp. Kris named the film as his number one movie of the year, and Guy his number two. I saw “Margaret” via a streaming link recently. It was presented in six instillations that required me to log in at each breaking point, the player was about a quarter of the size of my 17-inch computer, and the name “Kris Tapley” sat as a vertical watermark across the frame for the entirety of the screening. And yet even given the constraints of that viewing experience, had I created a top 10 list, I would have named “Margaret” as my number two film of the year as well – if not my number one.
“Margaret” is an authentic snapshot of New York’s creative intelligentsia, far more so than the overworked “Carnage,” which talks down to its characters and inspires nothing more than a desire to find a large stick of one’s own. “Margaret” is raw and messy and shockingly real. It feels both patterned and elliptical in the way that life often does. It is an almost painfully accurate depiction of a privileged, overly bright teen with more ambition (ethical and sometimes sexual in this case) than the sense that is born only of experience.
As someone who grew up first in the overcrowded, underfunded hallways of the public school system and then in the indulged corridors of an alternative, private high school for “gifted” children in New York, I can attest to the stunning sense of verisimilitude that the film evokes. I both was Lisa (the film’s central protagonist) and knew her. Had I been in high school in the post-9/11 era I would have taken part in the same heated, and yes, strident, debates that Anna Paquin’s Lisa regularly engages in.
To present an image: I transferred to my school midway through ninth grade. I came from a specialized public school that the students took the PSAT in eighth grade to get into. I was in the advanced levels of the humanities in said school. When I left we were reading the short story “The Lottery.” When I entered private school they had just completed “The Communist Manifesto” and were writing a manifesto of their own. I recall the idiosyncratic patterns of speech that we followed. If we substituted Lisa’s repeated use of “necessarily” for the word “particularly,” it would be as if either I or one of my classmates were speaking. Lisa is locked into a need to communicate with a sense of overt rationalism, even (as happens in the film) in the “throws of passion.” Do you have “any general guidelines” she queries as she is about to perform an intimate act, rather than the simpler, rawer and perhaps hotter “tell me what you want.” She cannot let go of her persona, of her need to control her external circumstances and vision of the world even long enough to surrender to the primal release of pleasure.
We, too, spoke with an established cadence peppered with intermittent SAT words so that we might test the flavors of “abeyance,” “inveigh” and “timorous” on our tongues in an everyday context (which, of course, is ludicrous in an everyday context — particularly the everyday context of a 16-year-old). We were obnoxious, well-meaning, intolerably ignorant, determined to be wisened and reprehensibly dismissive of “places like that” (read: outside of the boarders of NYC, which we inevitably referred to as “bridge and tunnel” or “where?”).
Kenneth Lonergan’s portrait of New York is the most genuine that I have ever seen. It is neither worshipful (as Woody Allen’s films often are) or dismissive (see “Carnage”). It is akin to our very best friend, the one that sees and loves us in the full scope of our virtues and frailties and does not shy from telling us the truth, from holding up a mirror to expose our nature so we can face it, as adults, rather than allowing us to remain in a willfully adolescent state.
Lonergan’s own turn as Lisa’s New Yorker cum Angelino father is a brutally honest picture of a well-intentioned but deeply selfish man, a man who is convinced of the justifications for his absentee parenting and reprehensibly inconsistent behavior. Lisa’s desire to right a wrong that cannot be undone is tragically untenable. It is adult in context (the scale and consequences of her error) and childish in practice (the path she takes in her reckoning). She hopes to reset the world to a moment when it makes sense, to shake off the guilt of her own culpability and clarify the confusion of the moral gray by finding a simple clear target to eliminate.
She latches onto what appears to be an achievable goal, and of course, paradoxically, the more insurmountable the prize becomes the more determined Lisa becomes to have it. She will do near anything to correct the uncorrectable, to assuage her shame, to sooth her sorrow and to find meaning in any manner of “justice” she can cling to. And yet it is ever unattainable, for her loss is her innocence, and it is the end of her untainted vision of herself that she truly grieves for.
How horrifically gorgeous a story this is, set against the backdrop of a city attempting to reconcile itself with the causes and consequences of 9/11. As a character study, the film is incomparable. As a metaphor, it continues to provide. “Margaret” goes beyond the limited scope of “a day in the life of” to, without force, express a truth about the macro via the experience of the micro.
The film also represents the finest performance its lead has given since her Academy Award-winning cinematic debut as young Flora McGrath in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” The roles are also oddly similar, both characters full of precocious mischief, burdened by parents who are in some ways themselves children, full of the subsequent rage that such conditions inspire, agonizingly young and dangerously conceited. In self-serving pursuits they each make choices that reap irreversible consequences (though Lisa’s more so). They are each narcissists surrounded by narcissists, attempting to find their way to connection.
How frighteningly relatable is that?
If you are a Los Angeles local, I cannot recommend enough that you take the time (it is a two-and-half-hour commitment) to see this film at this very rare screening. This is a free event and open to the public. You can register for your tickets on the USC site. Please do so, and then give us your take on “Margaret.”
And if you’re not an LA local, I can only hope you have the chance to experience the film, sooner rather than later.
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