Wednesday, May 02, 2012

"Margaret": a teenager wants to dictate her own terms of justice to others

As the new Fox film by Kenneth Lonegran, “Margaret”, opens, a fussy teenager Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) gets a trigonometry test back from preppie school teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon, who here looks about 25), with a “B-“ grade. Mr. Aaron confronts her with the fact that she cheated (he uses gentler words).  He lets her off.  She wonders why she has to know all this stuff.

When I taught algebra as a graduate student, back in 1966, I once caught someone copying on a test.  I gave him an automatic F for the course.  He even came back to my dorm room at KU to argue.  At 22, that’s the only time in my life I’ve done anything like that.  Well, one other time.  I gave a roommate there a bad reference to fibbies for bragging about attacking gays in the streets in downtown KC. 
In this movie, Lisa goes on a vendetta to get a NYC MTA bus driver who causes a horrible accident in trouble, to try to get him fired and prosecuted.  Why?  Does it make her feel important?

In the early part of the film, it would seem that is assuages her own guilt. The accident occurs as Lisa is chasing a bus, distracting the driver (Mark Ruffalo). It appears she is trying to catch the bus but she is titillated by the driver’s cowboy hat.  The movie shows him running a red light, and hitting a female pedestrian with a baby carriage. (It’s quite graphic.)  Lisa winds up holding the woman in her arms as she bleeds out, and we see a bare glimpse of the baby, who will be brain damaged (little more is said about the child in the film).  Lisa tells the cops that she thinks the light was green.  Was she trying to protect the driver at first?  Later, she connects up with a woman (Jeannie Berlin) running the victim’s estate, and wants to change the police report.  What makes her tick now?  In a book by Edward O. Wilson, “The Social Conquest of Earth” (books, yesterday), the author writes “People gain visceral pleasure in more than just leveling and cooperating. They also enjoy seeing punishment meted out to those who do not cooperate (freeloaders, criminals) and even to those who do not contribute at levels commensurate with their status (the idle rich).”  Is this indignation?

The film gets us into the world of lawyers, where we’re walked though the system which will prune the deep pockets of the MTA, which will settle to avoid publicity over its inability to fire a bus driver with previous moving violations.  Lisa is surprised at the moral relativism (and opportunism) of the legal world.  Lisa even pays a surprise visit on the driver at his Brooklyn (Ft. Hamilton area) rowhouse, and manages to make herself threatening.  This scene is one of the film’s most harrowing.

Lisa also remains self-indulgent enough to trap boyfriends (Kieran Culkin) and eventually her math teacher.   The movie leaves us hanging and wondering about a possible sequel: will something be done to Mr. Aaron for his moment of weakness, falling for an advance (which happens with her visit to his apartment).  A similar idea occurs in my own short screenplay “The Sub”, which, when posted onlne, caused a ruckus in the Fairfax County School System (VA), even though it was all fiction.

The film also covers Lisa’s stormy relationship with her actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), and divorced father, living in California.  It emphasizes her wealth and “privilege” yet doesn’t have the “Gossip Girl” look. The mother keeps saying that “life is not an opera”, even though lines in the plays that the actress performs mimic her life.
The film has A-list actors, and I’m surprised (with a $14 million budget) it doesn’t have wider theatrical release.  (It's reported that the movie has undergone legal disputes, as was filmed in 2005. Yes, the movie is long, at 150 minutes.)  I saw it at the West End Cinema in Washington DC, and the projection was not the best (it has been good on other films, even given the small screens); that was a loss in the music scenes, especially the climax at the opera (a performance of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman” Barcarolle by Rene Flemming; earlier there is a passage from Bellini's Norma).

The original music for the film is composed by Nico Muhly (one of a number of visible young NYC composers), and I have a review of some of Muhly’s music on my “drama” blog, Oct. 4, 2011. 
The film seems a bit episodic, chopping off scenes that could be concluded.  It throws in a lot of other classroom scenes, especially with an English teacher played by Tom Broderick, with a quote from a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem ("Spring and Fall") that explains the title of the film.  (And, yes, we had to read "King Lear" in high school senior English, too.)

The official Fox Searchlight site is here. The theatrical release was edited by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker.  This may sound like a strange perspective, but this film sounds like it could have been a multi-part dramatic television series.  

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