Youth In Tumult: ‘Margaret’ Gives Good Grief

(Films discussed in this post: Margaret, Putty Hill, The Myth Of The American Sleepover, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, A Better Life.)

“It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Margaret is a film about a teenage girl who is involved in the tragic death of a woman she doesn’t know; neither the woman nor the girl is named Margaret. “Margaret” comes from a 19th century poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called “Spring And Fall,” the subject of which unlocks just about everything you need to know about Margaret‘s themes.

But you can’t talk about without first knowing the story behind it, which in its own way is nearly as dramatic as the film itself. The heavily-anticipated follw-up to Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 film You Can Count On Me, Margaret was shot all the way back in 2005 but never released because Lonergan could not deliver a cut that was short enough for Fox Searchlight’s liking. (He wanted it to be about three hours; they wanted it to be under two and a half — or probably even much shorter.)

As such, Margaret is a curious time capsule starring a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin (brunette) who was 23 at the time, still young enough to portray a high school student more or less age-appropriately. Matt Damon plays one of her teachers, looking very young and Good Will Hunting-y (even though the film was shot nearly a decade after that). Kieran Culkin plays a role that would probably go to Rory Culkin if the movie were shot today. The eclectic, appealing cast also includes Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby, and Jean Reno, several of whom make reasonably brief appearances. The experience of watching a new/old movie in the theaters is a strange one — the fashion feels just bit off, for example — but in a way, this only enhances the off-kilter mood of the movie. (It wouldn’t work so well in a romantic comedy.)Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a typical high school student who hates math, likes short skirts, fights with her mother, and is incredibly articulate even when behaving like a brat or expressing her rather childish opinions. In other words, she’s a totally believable teenager, equally likable and exasperating; we warm up to some of her characteristics while recognizing that this girl still has a lot of growing up to do. Lisa’s New York City life is pretty average until she is shaken to the core by something that doesn’t even happen to her, exactly. Her quest to find a cowboy hat goes awry when she distracts a bus driver from watching the road, resulting in a horrible accident.

And by horrible, I don’t just mean theoretically horrible, implied horrible. I mean actually horrible, as it unfolds on screen. Margaret contains one of the most disturbing death sequences I’ve ever seen on film — disturbing because it’s the exact opposite of anything you’re likely to see in a slasher flick. Movie killings tend to be quick, but here we watch a woman die in real time — it isn’t quick, and it isn’t pretty. We’re with this poor soul every unfathomable step of the way (and so is Lisa), as this stranger experiences the terror, the confusion, the disbelief, and at last the acknowledgement that she’s “not going to make it.” This scene is gripping and uncomfortably real, tremendously acted by everyone in it, and it made me more certain than ever that I never want to be hit by a bus.That’s early in the movie. The rest of Margaret concerns the aftermath, but not in any conventional way. After returning home from school covered in a stranger’s blood, Lisa gets back to life as usual and for awhile seems unchanged by what’s happened. (She’s able to go on a date that night.) But then we start getting clues that Lisa’s feeling of responsibility over unwittingly causing this woman’s death is gnawing away at her. Her debates in school with a Libyan classmate about 9/11 take on a heated ferocity; Lisa is quick to point fingers, while her peers have a more balanced, pragmatic view. Lisa ditches the sweet guy who’s been crushing on her (John Gallagher Jr.) in favor of bad boy Paul (Culkin). Soon, she’s rethinking the statement she gave police that lets the bus driver off the hook. She can’t believe she got away with killing someone, however accidental it was, that easily. She wants someone to answer for what’s been done — but more than that, she wants it to matter.

Margaret contains a multitude of subplots featuring a wide array of characters, some more essential than others. Their significance is cumulative — you think this same story could easily be told without one or two of these elements, but would Margaret retain the same overall power? Perhaps most notable is Lisa’s realistic relationship with her divorced parents, played by J. Smith-Cameron and writer-director Lonergan himself. Smith-Cameron is Joan, a stage actress more concerned with the opening of her new play than she is with her daughter’s suffering — but in a believable, well-rounded way, not a “bad movie mom” way. She’s sympathetic, despite a few shortcomings as a mother. The other key relationship is Lisa’s burgeoning friendship (of sorts) with the dead woman’s best friend (a striking Jeannie Berlin), which does not go in the typical cathartic direction you might expect. It’s raw and prickly — a relationship between two human beings, not two movie characters.

All of this is fascinating, but make no mistake — Margaret is rough around the edges. You can feel those agonizing editing difficulties wafting out of it, particularly toward the uneven third act of the movie. At two and a half hours, the film feels a bit long (though never boring) — or, perhaps, too short, considering that there is obviously missing material that Lonergan felt was essential. Knowing this makes us more eager to forgive flaws in Margaret that might otherwise be more egregious. There are a couple of scenes late in the game featuring Matt Damon’s character that feel particularly awkward, and in my estimation, should have been excised from this cut of the film. They suggest a more basic movie we’ve already seen before, when the rest of Margaret isn’t that at all. It’s also a little unclear why the teachers portrayed by Damon and Broderick aren’t merely one character — it feels like they should be, though not at the expense of Broderick’s wonderfully irate scene in which he repeatedly snaps at a student: “That’s not what Shakespeare meant!”

Margaret is a film that lingers, much like the slow-burning grief Lonergan explores within. Lisa is a rich, fully-realized character full of contradictions, and you can’t help but admire her youthful longing for black-and-white answers, for justice. There’s some 9/11 subtext you can either take or leave; it certainly isn’t overt, but this story is set in New York City, and it examines the messy ways an assortment of characters handle tragedy. Most are content to let life go on as it will, but Lisa refuses to. Her tenacity may not provide the catharsis she’d like, but many in the audience will likely identify with her fury at the world’s many injustices. (Needless to say, Margaret has about a thousand times more to say about 9/11 than the wretched Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, even though it’s the latter film that tackles the event head-on.)

Like the girl Margaret in the Manley poem read aloud in one of Lisa’s classes, our heroine is experiencing her first brush with mortality while everyone around her is jaded and weathered, with their defenses already built. (Is America Margaret/Lisa? Is the rest of the world weary of our surprise that we, too, are privy to bloodshed?) We often wonder why none of the other characters provide the support Lisa needs, so that she decides she must take justice into her own incapable, inexperienced hands, but then another character calls Lisa out on being a “drama queen” in a shockingly incisive scene. It’s not clear (to me, anyway) which side Lonergan wants us to come out favoring — the naive, self-absorbed self-righteousness of Lisa, or the (arguably) more mature coping mechanisms of the adults in her life. Maybe both? Margaret leaves us with plenty to think about and almost demands multiple viewings to fully absorb. The film’s conclusion, set at an opera, is about as beautiful and satisfying as movie endings get.

Despite its 2011 release, Margaret still feels like a work in progress (we’re bound to see at least one more cut), and in that way it’s a rare glimpse at the filmmaking process — a project that becomes larger than itself and the story Lonergan initially sought to tell. Our heroine is willful, raw, nervy, and refuses to compromise; Lonergan, with his film, is the same, seeking truth and justice in a senseless world (in this case, Hollywood).

While Margaret never really had a chance at getting an any Oscar recognition — six years on the shelf alone would take care of that, never mind that it’s clearly a shade too dark for this year’s voters, who shunned Shame and Drive — it does feature a bevy of fine performances, including a brief but killer one from Allison Janney and a gutsy lead turn by Anna Paquin, who manages to show us something new and interesting about Lisa in every single scene she’s in.This year, a much more palatable film was recognized for an outstanding lead performance by the Academy, though the movie is no more on the mainstream radar than Margaret is. That film is A Better Life, for which the largely unknown Demian Bichir has been nominated as Best Actor opposite the likes of more familiar faces like Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Like Margaret, A Better Life concerns a character’s frustration with “the system” — the way society deals with morally murky situations. Here, the subject is immigration, which automatically opens a Pandora’s box of conflicting feelings which we know cannot ever be closed by one movie.

Bichir stars as Carlos, the kind of guy you see so often around Los Angeles he’s practically invisible. He’s a gardener, born in Mexico, a single father to a teenage son named Luis (Jose Julian). This is another refreshingly realistic teen character who silently appreciates his father’s sacrifices as long as he doesn’t really have to think about them. Carlos, as you might imagine, is barely making ends meet, and his primary goal is to afford his son more opportunities than he had himself — “a better life,” if you will. Father and son don’t see eye-to-eye often until Carlos’ new truck is stolen by a fellow gardener. This awakens a rage within Luis at the many injustices faced by blue-collar Mexican-Americans living legally or illegally in the United States (not unlike Lisa’s indignant refusal to accept that life isn’t fair). Father and son team up, Bicycle Thief-style, to track down the stolen truck, because for people such as Carlos, the only justice available is the kind you pursue on your own time, on your own terms.There is much to admire in A Better Life, directed (somewhat surprisingly) by Chris Weitz of About A Boy fame and Twilight: New Moon notoriety. And yes, Bichir’s performance is one of them. (I would gladly put down $100 on which scene they’ll draw the Oscar clip from.) But thanks to a bit of a left turn taken at the end of the second act, it’s also a little didactic — this feels first and foremost like a movie about the Immigration Issue, and secondly like a story about a father and son. You know exactly what’s on its mind, and A Better Life doesn’t have a whole lot to add to the conversation besides, “Yep — this problem sucks on every conceivable level.” And in that way, it’s a bit depressing.

I would never begrudge a film like this or an actor like Bichir their attention from the Academy, because it’s nice to see nearly any small movie receiving recognition. I just wish A Better Life didn’t feel quite so polished, quite so direct in its approach; it could have benefited from being a bit rougher around the edges, like Margaret. Some of the film’s most interesting scenes involve Luis and the gang life that he could very easily slip into, and A Better Life asks a bold question: when the only other avenue for Luis is to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a gardener for such meager wages, is gang life really the less appealing option? I wasn’t wholly moved by A Better Life, but both lead performers are solid; they’re playing characters who deserved a slightly deeper movie.And while we’re on the topic of teens coming into their own, two very under-the-radar films also centered on youngsters who are more grounded and realistic than your Average Movie Teenager. One is Putty Hill, a film that, like Margaret, takes a look at the grieving process through a random sampling of citizens; it, too, seems to find some frustrations in the ways people can be so disconnected. The “plot” (if you can call it that) concerns the OD of a twentysomething named Cody in a suburb of Baltimore; from there, we glimpse how those who knew him mourn (or, more often, don’t mourn) as his funeral approaches.

The most notable thing about Putty Hill is its pseudo-documentary approach — the presence of the filmmaker is acknowledged as director Matthew Porterfield occasionally asks a character a question out of the blue. Other times, though, he’s invisible, merely observing the action. Though unusual, on the whole, this device works; what doesn’t work so well is how slow and meandering the film is, as if what we’re seeing is raw footage that has yet to be edited. Aside from model/musician Sky Ferreira, the cast consists of unknowns and the scenes are heavily improvised, which feels natural but only occasionally captivating. The problem with Putty Hill is that if it really were a documentary, several of its subjects would be cut out for failing to hold our interest. What comes across more than anything is despair in this community, a hopeless lack of surprise that one of their own has died in such a meaningless way. Nobody in Putty Hill can muster any emotion at all about Cody’s death or any aspect of their unremarkable lives. It’s a subject worthy of exploration, perhaps, but this deliberately-paced film could easily be half as long and just as powerful.

A similar but more successful endeavor is David Robert Mitchell’s feature debut The Myth Of The American Sleepover, which also uses a cast of unknowns and evokes a natural, fly-on-the-wall experience for the viewer. But here, there’s much more to be charmed by. A throwback to classic teen party movies like Dazed And Confused, American Graffiti, and Can’t Hardly Wait, The Myth Of The American Sleepover follows a sprawling cast of youths on the last night of summer to a number of different sleepovers. The storylines are as simple as they come, mostly of the “guy/girl likes guy/girl and they get together” variety. The Myth Of The American Sleepover isn’t attempting to come off like a documentary, but the amateur performances do lend a realism rare in films about teens. Unlike Putty HillThe Myth Of The American Sleepover has no contempt for its subjects or their modest lives. Mitchell is more concerned with optimism and possibility, evoking a palpable sense that this ragtag group really does have its whole lives ahead of them. You can actually embrace these characters.

Amongst the performers, Claire Sloma as Maggie is the standout. With her short-cropped hair and dogged pursuit of the boy she likes, we initially want to box her into the category of “rebel” or “slut” as teen movies have trained us to do — but beyond a few side characters, The Myth Of The American Sleepover isn’t really interested in showing us “types.” Despite the fact that this is her only film credit, Sloma displays a wit and magnetism that could serve her well in other films of this scale, one of two actors you might consider the “main character.” The other is portrayed by Marlon Marton. His acting is not so polished as Sloma’s, but since he’s playing a teenage boy in his gawkiest, most awkward years, the casting works. His character Rob becomes preoccupied with a blonde girl he spied in the supermarket, and attempts to find her. But along the way, he is distracted by other pretty blondes. It’s hardly a revelation of a storyline, but it ends poignantly and satisfyingly.The subplot that doesn’t quite work involves a college student portrayed by Brett Jacobsen — mainly because, next to these other young performers, he feels about 40 and he’s still lusting after two hot twins from his sister’s class. It’s a little creepy, though still sensitive and well-written and absent the usual teen movie cliches. In its very lack of ambition, The Myth Of The American Sleepover succeeds at being winsome and refreshingly unpretentious; it’s a snapshot of one night in a handful of ordinary teen lives, and nothing more.

Of course, The Myth Of The American Sleepover is only one masked killer away from being the perfect setup for a horror movie, the approach taken by the tongue-in-cheek slasher parody Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. Here is the polar opposite of Margaret, a film in which almost everybody dies and the characters hardly bat an eye; in Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, the value of a human life is basically nothing. But that’s because it’s a send-up of horror movies like Friday The 13th and Saw, brutally offing nubile teens willy-nilly, not because writer-director Eli Craig is heartless. (The film has a surprising sweetness beneath all the carnage.)

The story is as follows: two rednecks are on their way to enjoy their new vacation home in the woods. But when Tucker (Alan Tudyk) encourages Dale (Tyler Labine) to hit on a pretty girl (30 Rock‘s hilarious, underutilized Katrina Bowden), the humorously massive cast of teenagers takes it the wrong way and thinks they’re threatening them. A misunderstanding leads to the teens thinking Tucker and Dale have kidnapped Allison, and then, in an exaggerated series of mishaps, things go from bad to much, much worse.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil features its young cast accidentally killing themselves or each other in gruesome but often darkly funny ways, which only increasingly makes it looks like Tucker and Dale are psycho killers when, in reality, they’re even more terrified than the kids. That’s about it as story goes, and that premise wears a bit thin after awhile; there’s no way to find even a shred of plausibility in the story, and the film never tries to. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is clever enough to recommend to die-hard horror fans, but a little goes along way, and you’ll be desensitized to all the violence long before its over. As parodies go, it’s a cut above the Scary Movie franchise — but is that saying much?

*

Margaret: Raw and haunting, it stays with you — like the memory of a disturbing accident you witnessed.

The Myth Of The American Sleepover: A minor triumph.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil: If you like your laughs peppered with gore, it’s for you.

A Better Life: It could be a better movie, but at least its subject matter is worthwhile.

Putty Hill: Half a decent movie; the other half is deadly boring.

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