'Margaret' Is the Coming-of-Age Masterpiece You Probably Missed

Obfuscated by time and scandal at the time of its release, "Margaret" is a wondrous story about the traumas of girlhood that deserved "Lady Bird"-like praise.

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Jan 5 2018, 6:11pm

Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Welcome to "Reel Women," a new column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.

There are certain life-changing milestones typical of teenage coming-of-age dramas—losing your virginity (or at least trying to), a change in family relationships, or something trivial that seems like life-or-death at the time, like getting a prom date. But in Kenneth Lonergan’s 2011 epic Margaret, it’s a traumatic bus accident that sets off a chain of events.

Margaret is star-studded with Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, Kieran Culkin, Allison Janney, and Jean Reno, and was lauded as a masterpiece by The New Yorker’s Richard Brody. But hardly anyone saw the film when it debuted; initially shot in 2005, Margaret went through a grueling editing process due to disagreements from the director, producer, and studio before its all too brief theatrical run in 2011. Obfuscated by time and scandal at its release, the film now reveals a wondrous coming-of-age story deserving of all the buzz of Lady Bird. Today, Margaret is still being discovered by viewers and gaining new fans. On January 6 and 17, New York’s Quad Cinema is providing the opportunity to rewatch or discover the film in the full director’s cut that Lonergan originally intended to put out.

Margaret is one of the greatest coming-of-age movies and one of the greatest New York movies, and easily one of the best of this century. It both is and isn’t like your typical coming-of-age drama, touching on familiar tropes but subverting predictable characterizations or plot points. Margaret is still resonant because it centers a poignantly realistic depiction of a teenager in crisis.

Anna Paquin plays 17-year-old Lisa Cohen ("Margaret" is not her name, but rather refers to a Gerard Manley-Hopkins poem thematically fitting to the film), who is in so many frustrating ways just like a real teen—yet she endures something most teens don't ever experience. One afternoon, while shopping for a cowboy hat to wear on a trip with her father, she spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing one to her liking and flirtatiously tries to get his attention as he is driving away. Ruffalo, distracted and flattered by the girl’s efforts, watches Lisa instead of the road, and ends up running a red light, crashing into—and eventually killing—a pedestrian (Allison Janney in a shocking, even somewhat uncomfortably comical, performance).

At 186 minutes, Margaret asks you to spend three hours with this difficult, distressed, selfish teen girl as she tries to make sense of her world. Coloring the context of this New York trauma film is 9/11; the film takes place a few years after the terrorist attacks and while it isn't central to Margaret’s plot, knowing that adds to the complex web that is Lisa Cohen's universe. In one scene showcasing Paquin's incredible performance, she throws a vaguely Islamophobic tempter tantrum about the very subject in class. While the national tragedy affects the way Lisa interprets her own life events, it wouldn't be unfair to say that she likely felt the bus accident on a more disastrous magnitude than the events of 9/11.

During its sprawling runtime, Margaret also manages to hit the marks of a typical coming-of-age drama, including the part where the protagonist has sex for the first time. After thwarting the advances of a shy male classmate (John Gallagher, Jr.), Lisa calls on another guy named Paul (Kieran Culkin as a sort of bad boy character who's later revealed to be goofily inexperienced himself). In a very matter-of-fact phone conversation, Lisa asks Paul, "Would you wanna meet somewhere and take away my virginity?" He agrees; they proceed.

By the end of the film, Lisa claims to have had sex with several guys, including her math teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon). We also find out, after the fact, that she had an abortion and that the father could have been any number of men, though we never see anyone but Paul and Aaron. Lisa is never seen hung up on men; we later realize this "it's just meaningless fun" attitude also caused her to flirt with the bus driver, indirectly causing a woman's death.

Lonergan expertly illustrates the drama and gravitas of life at Lisa's age. While the bus accident was dramatic by any standards, Lisa goes the extra mile by putting herself at the center of it, reaching out to the dead woman's friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) and seeking justice against the bus driver (who is revealed to have caused other previous accidents). Lisa talks to the police and a lawyer, and even tracks the bus driver to his home.

Lisa's well-intentioned yet self-centered quest for justice leads to a narrow-minded journey where she applies unwarranted significance to the event, like getting hung up on the coincidence that the dead woman's daughter—who is also dead—was named Lisa, too.

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During all of this, we see the toll that Lisa's effort to find meaning where there might be none has on her life: Her grades fall and her relationship with her mother (played by Lonergan’s wife, J. Smith-Cameron) falls apart at the seams. (In one of her explosive scenes, Lisa’s mom calls her a cunt.) Lisa is well-meaning but careless, and volatile when things don't work out the way she expected. "We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!" Emily yells at Lisa in a shattering, reality check moment. She also challenges Lisa's perception of herself, telling her that she doesn't necessarily care about things more than other people, just more easily.

Margaret can be squirm-in-your-seat levels of difficult to watch, not because of its runtime, but because of how identifiable Lisa is as a remnant of our past selves—the ones that felt everything too intensely before our own "reality checks." Margaret is also a mesmerizing portrait of traumatized youth that asks us to consider the adults we've become.