by Sean Nelson
There’s a case to be made that the social milieu of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, a Manhattan of private schools, off-Broadway opening nights, and cathartic trips to the Metropolitan Opera, represents a poor lens through which to examine the rise of Donald Trump. In the days immediately following the election, however, it became clear that the film’s chief area of thematic concern—the human cost of our failure to communicate with each other, regardless of class disparity or similarity—was a painfully resonant one.
Another way in which Margaret, despite being set in the PTSD-riddled New York of 2002, feels very current: Though this assessment may one day seem retroactively hyperbolic (“that’s just the way I talk”), at this moment, less than a week later, Trump’s victory feels far more akin to 9/11 than it does a mere staggering political upset. Like the “overprivileged liberal Jews” of the film struggling to articulate the vastness of their conflicted inner lives in the long shadow of the attacks on their city, many millions of people are even now striving to give voice to the fear that domestic fascism has just taken root in their country.
And just as in the film, out here in the West Coast bubble nobody can quite agree how we’re meant to proceed, how to talk about it, and more to the point, how it could be possible that half the country is so radically, unknowably different from the other half. These conditions generate passionate conflict, side-taking, and self-justification—rage follows scorn follows spite. But they can also result in a degree of dislocation that makes you question your own perception—not only of the world around you, but of the world within.
That kind of dislocation both propels and impedes Lisa Cohen’s tumultuous coming-of-age, a series of events that includes commonplace adolescent events (sexual dalliances with classmates) alongside more complicated ones (a sexual dalliance with a teacher) that are all within the normal range of her semi-elite, uptown latchkey class. But her world of adolescent self-regard is concussed when she witnesses, and to some extent causes, a legitimate catastrophe: a bus accident whose victim dies horribly and gorily in Lisa’s arms.
This upends an already fraught consciousness, in which adult responsibilities and expectations have been loaded onto a girl who can’t quite all-the-way shoulder them, but who excels at seeming like they are no big deal. Her talent for this kind of dissimulation—almost a prerequisite among her overprivileged peer group—leads Lisa down a path of emotional entanglements she is both ill-equipped to handle and irresistibly drawn to, driven by the contradictory desires to seem mature enough to handle anything and to be revealed as an utterly lost girl.
From a viewer’s perspective, enabled by Anna Paquin’s stunningly complex, anti-ingratiating performance, it’s easy to read every word Lisa utters as a wail of longing to be seen plain, even when she’s at her most armored.
It’s in the nature of youth, and of her worldly cosmopolitan context, and of the trauma she is only semi-consciously concealing, that Lisa can’t ask for the help she requires. It’s in the nature of the character that she might not even know she requires it. From a viewer’s perspective, enabled by Anna Paquin’s stunningly complex, anti-ingratiating performance, it’s easy to read every word Lisa utters as a wail of longing to be seen plain, even when she’s at her most armored.
What she says, a hyperintentional, performed argot that changes with every new person she talks to, is never as revealing as how she says it—halting, interruptive gulps, sardonic asides, knowing flirtations, fiery tirades. But she shares this strangely evasive lingua franca with everyone in her world: teachers, friends, parents. Only when she ventures outside her discomfort zone, into the truly vast world of the real other does she begin to realize that her arsenal of words is a poor method for conveying the vastness of her reality.
The paltriness of language, or at least its insufficiency, is an unusual subject for a film written and directed by a playwright as verbally dexterous as Lonergan, but it enables a startling feat of expression. The dialogue is a masterful vehicle to portray people whose fine vocabularies seem to prevent them from being understood.
They resort to clichés (“what it would feel like to feel a real feeling”), me-statement circumlocutions (“If you’re really saying you’re not aware that you’ve been really annoyed with me, or really irritable with me, and it doesn’t matter if I express it accurately—you know what I’m trying to say”), self-conscious rhetorical peacocking (“appropriate equestrian paraphernalia”), and equally intentional self-deprecation (“I realize I’m incredibly enthralling”), seemingly unable to find words that aren’t pre-emptively surrounded by quotation marks.
When the kids in the fancy private school bicker about the causes and effects of America’s foreign wars, the phrases they use—“They want to establish a medieval Islamic Caliphate” ; “drop bombs on innocent people”; “a bunch of sick monsters”—are similarly well-rehearsed, as if the quest for convictions has led them only to a warehouse of things people say on the news.
Likewise, when they address their teachers, in school and out, they do so with a combination of cocky, class-based insouciance, and a genuine effort to seem impressive. For Lisa, this plays out as a graceless, ultimately successful seduction of one teacher, and a cruel, humiliating interlude with another.
It’s not surprising that when the characters corner themselves with all this non-communication, they pounce on each other ferociously. In the heat of an already petulant mother-daughter argument, Joan calls Lisa a cunt. Lisa’s announcement of “general discussions” about going to live with her father results in Joan throwing a proper actress tantrum, swiping the just-laid dinner plates, full of food, off the table and onto the floor, and calls her a “heartless little fucking bitch.”
In both scenes, her ire is both justifiable and uncalled for—she’s the mother, after all. But the classic dynamics of their parent-child relationship have eroded, leaving only a framework. Joan’s life in the theater and the putative independence of Lisa’s worldly prep school element make them more like roommates who observe certain old formalities, while ignoring others. In this case, it’s the daughter who does the most conspicuous withholding of the love and vulnerability the relationship requires. But as their conflict intensifies, it becomes painfully clear that they are both suffering, equally and differently, from its absence.
The most ferocious verbal thrashing comes from Emily, the “friend” of the woman killed in the bus accident. She is one of a vanishing subspecies of New Yorker—the refined Jewish intellectual who appears to be utterly incapable of pretending she has time for social niceties, and who has no qualms about being, or seeming unpleasant. When she detects what she thinks is a low, cheap motive in Lisa’s effort to help her pursue a lawsuit against the city, Emily lays into the younger woman with the kind of severity that surely no one has ever spoken to her before. Lisa counters with a wall of indignation and shock, every word of which rings increasingly false in the light of Emily’s unalloyed, pitiless wisdom. Shattering one illusion after another, she finally delivers the film’s crucial line—“You have every right to falsify your own life, but you have no right to falsify anybody else’s,” by which time Lisa’s face is a gnarled puddle of tears and confusion. She has been found out, in exactly the way she wanted to be, but the revelation is greeted not by sympathetic nurturing, but by scorn. It’s the kind of moment that could make an adult out of anyone.
The astonished tears on her face as she resists the well-earned dressing down from Emily remind us that in spite of everything, Lisa remains a child, less in search of a parent or a lover than a self she can confidently, consistently be.
Interestingly, that rebuke is followed by a slightly over-reaching post-script: “It’s what makes people into Nazis,” words that tell us that Emily is not only dispensing a much needed reality check to her young counterpart, but that she might also be ever-so-slightly relishing it. (This isn’t to suggest her insight isn’t keen—or, again in light of Trump, instructive—but a half-Jewish NYC teenager is an unlikely candidate for the Wehrmacht.) Her diatribe is cathartic for her and for us. The experience of watching Lisa careen off one reasonably well-meaning person after another, never revealing her true self, but still causing harm as she bounces, is frustrating. And when she tries to confront the bus driver and the police department with scathingly bad results, it becomes clear that we’re in the company of that rarest of specimens: an almost entirely unsympathetic lead character in a major motion picture.
Her propensity for saying stunningly inconsiderate things (she finally gets kicked out of Emily’s house—though not her life, oddly enough—when she employs the word “strident”) and treating people cruelly because she doesn’t believe herself significant enough to leave a mark on anyone only emphasizes the film’s ambition to reveal the cost of careless words and actions as a means of conveying a passionate frustration.
It makes the project of empathizing with her all the more challenging, and all the more essential. The astonished tears on her face as she resists the well-earned dressing down from Emily remind us that in spite of everything, Lisa remains a child, less in search of a parent or a lover than a self she can confidently, consistently be.
That quest is indicated in the film’s opening shots, of New York streets we’ve seen in a million other movies, slowed down to a glacial tempo that forces us to really notice all these faceless people—the smoking lady throwing away a small scrap of paper, the dumpy businessman in the uncomfortable suit, the bicycle delivery man laden with plastic bags, all those strollers, all those canes and wheelchairs. We’re invited to consider the lives behind their ordinary, forgettable presentation. It might seem like a facile point until you realize you’re one of them.
About midway through the film, we follow Lisa as she disappears into this same proliferation of quotidian reality. It’s a quiet moment, but it evokes an essential moment of surrender that Lisa might not know she’s having, shedding her specialness, entering the million. It’s also the moment where the film’s elusive purpose begins to come into focus. She will weep, but unlike the young child in the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem who gives the film its name, Lisa doesn’t yet know why. But we do.
Sean Nelson is a writer, musician, and actor who lives in Seattle. He is the Arts Editor of The Stranger.