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Updated: Jan 21, 2019

Released 2012. Director: Kenneth Lonergan

A SELF-ABSORBED TEENAGE GIRL’S SUDDEN, VIOLENT confrontation with mortality and her maddening, all-consuming passion to make sense of her chaotic emotions is the beating heart of Margaret.

Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, a wilful, sensitive, opinionated high-schooler who inadvertently causes a fatal accident on a busy Manhattan street. The victim (a short but effectively memorable role for Allison Janney) dies in the arms of Lisa. The girl literally has blood on her hands.

Lisa lies to the police and the bus driver, who was distracted by Lisa when he ran over the woman, goes free. Much later, Lisa has second thoughts and tracks down the bus driver to get him to confess. When things don’t go as Lisa has hoped, she goes all out on a legal case to get the driver fired.

Margaret is all about this very tumultuous period in Lisa’s life. She has very strong views on Muslims, Jews, terrorism, the world, everything, and is dead-set determined in pursuing her vision of justice. She is easily provoked and doesn’t hold anything back when antagonising her mother on seemingly trivial matters. But what is on Lisa’s mind? What is she really thinking of?

Lisa is one of those people who think the world revolves around them. It is a fascination in trying to understand this complex character, just because she is fictional. If Lisa were a real person, a daughter, a sister, a cousin, trying to talk to her or ask her to consider another person’s views would be an exercise in extreme frustration. As a movie character, Lisa is acutely realised and powerfully portrayed.

Is Lisa’s mission the result of genuine remorse? Or could it be some kind of vindictiveness towards the bus driver, and by extension, towards men in general? She doesn’t have a father figure at home after her father moved away and remarried. She doesn’t seem to show any care for her younger brother. There’s a boy in class who tries to date her and Lisa strings him along. She picks up the phone and offers her virginity to a drug-taking classmate, for no discernible reason. She is defiant to her teachers (the four we see are all men) and casually seduces one of them. She has an instant disapproval of her mother’s new boyfriend.

Is Lisa doing all this as a selfish act for herself? One could make a sociological study of her behaviour and present a case for and against this argument. Is Lisa manipulating the people around her to keep herself in the spotlight? Or is it part of the confusion of youth, an overpowering idealism? Her shocking encounter with death at such close range has triggered something in Lisa. She feels sadness and anger but she doesn’t know how to process these emotions. She is like the girl Margaret in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Spring and Fall.

The man behind this tale of a young woman rattled by conscience and narcissism is Kenneth Lonergan, as writer, director and defender. Lonergan made You Can Count On Me in 2000, a wonderful, heartfelt, very underrated family drama starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Margaret was written in 2003, shot two years later, then cold-shelved due to studio wrangling over the final cut. Now it’s finally seeing the light of day, albeit without much of the media attention it deserves, and completely bypassed by last year’s awards selections. Screenplay and acting would have been two strong contenders.

Margaret is not without flaws. With a running time of 150 minutes, the movie could have been trimmed. I’m not sure of the narrative significance of the series of landscape shots and street scenes of pedestrians. Perhaps Lonergan will explain why it’s important to cut the movie this way and what compromises he accepted to have his movie released. In terms of performance, the cast is strong and capable, from Jeannie Berlin as the dead woman’s best friend to J. Smith-Cameron as Lisa’s volatile mother, Jean Reno as her love interest, Mark Ruffalo as the bus driver, and Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick as Lisa’s teachers, adding shades and textures in this troubled teenage worldview. In the end, this is truly Anna Paquin’s movie, through and through, an explosive, hysterical, screaming-mad, career-defining role of a teenage girl at a psychological, emotional and moral crossroads.


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