In college, my film professor once compared experiencing great works of art, whether literature, music, or film, to becoming closer to God. We, as individuals, go through life forging our own sense of morality and the Truth, so our organic connection to works of art we feel reflect this Truth is in fact a spiritual one.
There’s few films I consider meeting this profound, ambitious criteria, but Margaret sure does. It is the effortless, exquisite coming of age story of a high school girl, Lisa Cohen, becoming a young woman after witnessing and playing a role in a devastating tragedy.
I say “effortless” ironically, because this film is anything but; clocking in at nearly three hours (over three if you’re watching the Director’s Cut), this epic tale about one girl seems to encompass all of New York, if not all of humanity. Shots of Lisa riding alone in a taxicab pan out to a cityscape filled with solo cabs, together alone in the streets.
Anna Paquin’s incredible turn as Lisa is anything but effortless as well; she is this movie, pulling us in with her fiery passion, pathetic naivete, and devastating heartbreak. How she got through 2012 without earning a Best Actress Academy Award (let alone a nomination) is truly beyond me. Her performance is one most actresses could only ever hope to achieve.
What does feel so authentic and effortless about this film, however, is its change-over-time plot and the way characters respond to one another. An interesting development to observe is Lisa’s mother’s acting career, and how each performance brings her more bows, more applause, more standing ovations.
One of the film’s more compelling themes, Lisa’s “self-dramatization” of the tragedy onto herself, is well fleshed out through the scenic design; we are experiencing the story through her eyes, but not exactly the world. The caricature adults and peers she encounters are in fully developed, believable worlds, from her math teacher who sublets his unit to the organically messy police department. These spaces all feel real, and the more locations we visit, the more we buy the world presented to us.
Margaret’s most outstanding aspect, though, is its ability to create moments of high drama without grazing exploitation. This is not a film for the lighthearted, with its emotionally wrecking scenes and darker underlying subtexts. The institutional weaknesses of society are hard enough to live with as an adult, least of all through the eyes of a passionate youth. Margaret is a true masterpiece of youth cinema, as both an empowering testament to young naivete and a sometimes-necessary reality check.