Most movies blithely celebrate self-absorption. The highest tenet of most movies is: me, me, me. Lead actors (and audiences) are used to being flattered for their sentimentality and easy moralising. So it’s strange to encounter a film where the main character is challenged about her egocentric beliefs. Kenneth Lonergan’s sophomore effort as director is a complex, spiritually urgent story about conscience and consciousness. The title, Margaret, comes from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, where a young girl’s first experience of grief serves as a painful step towards spiritual maturity. In a sense, this is a familiar coming-of-age story, but one where true self-awareness comes from separating selfish “me” from what is meaningful.
When she inadvertently causes a terrible accident, teenager Lisa Cohen is confronted with the arbitrary injustice of life. A stranger literally dies in her arms, and Lisa spends the rest of the movie trying to make sense of this senseless death. At first, understandably, she is traumatised. She wants only to forget about the accident. Later, when she can’t forget, she decides she wants somebody to blame. Lisa thinks of herself as a moral person, but her story isn’t about the virtue of doing the right thing. The world of this movie is (to quote Swami Vivekananda) “a moral gymnasium wherein we have all to take exercise so as to become stronger spiritually.” In short, Lisa’s values have no worth until they’re tested by the world.
Some critics have called Margaret a “post-9/11 movie”, but it’s so graceful in its allusions, you don’t become aware of them until you pause to reflect. There is no crude allegory at work here. Nor does recognising these allusions detract from the drama, or reduce any single character to the status of a puppet, or make the audience feel duped. The central premise of Margaret just fits with reactions to 9/11 because it’s a movie about the insane difficulty of seeing someone else’s point of view. It’s about how we communicate with people who aren’t like us; how we “falsify” people by making assumptions about them; how strident we become when we only listen to one voice. What’s amazing is that it doesn’t get touchy-feely.
Lisa is not an angry teenage cliché who learns to love by the end of the movie. Or rather (and here’s the really clever part), she is an angry teenager who learns to love by the end of the movie, but the screenplay is neither gloopy nor clichéd. Lisa might take a superficial point of view about certain subjects (the accident, U.S. foreign policy), but there’s nothing superficial about her character. She is both a manipulative, self-centred drama queen and an extremely moral, eloquent idealist, and it’s these contradictions that make her human. Like the rest of the cast, she’s a pain-in-the-ass sometimes; things happen which bother her and she doesn’t respond with the equanimity of a saint. Half the time she’s too busy reeling. She’s as smart, if not smarter, than most of the people she meets, and yet they never speak or react as she anticipates. As we all know, it’s frustrating to be wrong when you know you’re in the right.
New York is the ideal setting for this story because it bristles with life. Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t want to make a movie where everyone learns to get along. There’s nothing sappy or “Spielberg” about Margaret. Moral choice in this film is not (the usual movie guff) about choosing to be good when the alternative is to be bad; it’s about how difficult it is to be objective. Conflicting points of view abound in this story. Lisa scarcely opens her mouth and she’s caused offence. She lives in a city full of unabashed humanity; smart, complex people surround her, all jostling for the spotlight. As one woman scolds Lisa, with righteous indignation: “We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!”
This movie wants to rattle spectators. You’re not safe in your little narcissistic cocoon. You don’t get to act superior to Lisa, or to pretend you know what the right thing is she should do. You’re in her shoes. Your heart’s scrambled. I dare you not to cry. What makes this movie truly great is that it doesn’t ask you to switch off your brain so it can move you. The crackle of ideas isn’t doused by sentiment. This movie is adamantly against a purely emotional response to complex issues. In the poem which inspired Margaret, the key line is where the poet speaks of how, in her maturity, the young woman “will weep and know why”. Feeling, alone, is not meaningful. It’s what feeling connects us to that we call profound.