Margaret (MA 15+). Director: Sarah Polley. Starring Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo. 150 minutes
Can you make amends without accepting responsibility? This ethical oxymoron is at the heart of Margaret. Bright but self-centred student Lisa (Paquin) contributes to the death of a pedestrian (Janney) when she actively distracts a bus driver (Ruffalo), causing him to run a red light. Subsequently (and notwithstanding some self-examination) she attempts to mitigate her guilt by punishing the driver's wrongdoing, rather than repenting her own.
It's a rather solitary quest. Lisa's life contains a dearth of dependable role models. Her actor mother Joan (Smith-Cameron) is distracted by a revived career and a new relationship with a French-Palestinian suitor (Reno). Her absentee father proffers platitudes over a long-distance phone line. One teacher (Damon) attemps to mentor Lisa in her dilemma but is too accepting of her flirtatious advances to be considered a disinterested advisor.
Throughout the film, the semantics of justice and revenge are tested on both the personal and extra-personal level; notably, within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the conflict between Islam and the West that was seemingly galvanised by September 11. These are debated hotly in Lisa's high school ethics class and among adults too. In both settings the ethics of tit-for-tat and perspectives constrained by self-interest are weighed and wasted.
Writer-director Lonergan has done an impressive job weaving these broad and abstract themes into a tangible and warmly emotive human story, spearheaded by a tour-de-force performance by Paquin who, at nearly 30 years of age, captures perfectly the vicious self-absorption and viscous vulnerability that make up the as-yet unformed adulthood of the 17-year-old protagonist Lisa.
Lisa's behaviour is welded to the idea of performance. She plays the coquettish underachiever in one class, the high-minded demagogue in another. She invites a friend to 'take' her virginity; he condescends to her appallingly, yet is unwittingly playing to the script in her head. Following one moment of gross self-aggrandisement in her quest to avenge the dead woman, she is justifiably accused of being enamoured of the drama of the situation.
But the film suggests this is not malevolence on Lisa's part but learned behaviour: at one point, her mother Joan's rage during an encounter with the recalcitrant Lisa is juxtaposed pointedly with her huffy (in-character) entrance onto a theatre stage. Each of these two women is struggling, in her own way, to shed the skin she presents to the world in order to more firmly accept her own human vulnerability and allow her better to identify with the other.
Ironically, this occurs while they are audience members at an opera. Self-awareness and compassion are awakened by their empathetic engagement with the fictional characters on stage. This reflects the ideal that entertainment, well intended and effectively executed, can promote the betterment of individual and collective humanity. Which is one of the lofty goals of Margaret itself.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.