It turns out I wasn’t actually ready for Margaret; maybe there’s no way to be. I’ve watched my fair share of mid-budget realist dramas from the last 20 years, and I went in with the expectation that Margaret would slot in neatly alongside them. And in the first 20 minutes, it seemed as if it might—but as the film wound its way forward and sideways through this teenage girl’s year, it started to elude categorization. A plot summary of Margaret might go something like this: 17-year-old Lisa Cohen’s life is upended when she plays a role in distracting a bus driver who proceeds to hit and kill a woman. She then learns hard lessons about life’s unfairness when she mounts a campaign to try to get the bus driver fired. But the film shows us much more than this story—we also see Lisa pursue various relationships with men, and watch her participate in classroom discussions about the war in Iraq, and we follow her mother’s acting career and the tensions that arise between her and Lisa. Lisa is hard to like, and a lot of that seems to do with the fact that she’s all over the place, different from one scene to the next. Margaret was either a particularly meandering coming-of-age drama, or a quiet epic poem about life in New York in the ‘00’s, or some indeterminate third thing. Whatever it was, it left me a little frustrated. Margaret certainly was an experience, but for some reason it didn’t feel like a movie to me—I had some itch that had gone unscratched.
I had spent that first viewing waiting for Lisa (played by Anna Paquin) to hit her Screenwriting 101 marks. I wanted to be told, clearly and early on, who she was and what she wanted; I wanted to watch her go on a Journey and pursue an Objective, to follow a throughline to Climax and Catharsis. I don’t usually prioritize adherence to story structure principles when I’m watching a film, so it was strange to find myself feeling this way— and, if I were to really look at it, Margaret was in fact adhering to a kind of three act structure, albeit loosely. But there was something about the film that felt unruly and prickly and somehow against the rules.
On my second viewing, I realized what it was. It was the fact that Lisa was moving through the world, and through the film, like an honest-to-god adolescent—not like a teenager from movie-world, but like a teenager from this world. Lisa’s identity had seemed so unstable that it had registered to my brain as bad writing—as Lonergan having committed the screenwriting sin of creating an “inconsistent character.” I had been waiting for the film to sell me on its protagonist—to make me like her and root for her and identify with her—but Margaret provides the viewer with few emotional guide rails. To watch Margaret is to spend three hours in the nearly uninterrupted company of a caustic, bright, naive, and passionate 17-year-old girl as she navigates a difficult passage of her life. Lonergan’s radical gambit is to let us see Lisa shifting her persona as she moves through different social situations, the way we all do, but particularly the way that adolescents do. In violating the screenwriting principle of “character consistency,” he blows the lid off the concept of the lovable teen protagonist and shows us what an actual adolescent so often looks like—and much like what I must have looked like.
I recoiled from Margaret the first time because watching Anna Paquin’s performance as Lisa was like watching my past self live through a year of high school—and not the charming memory of that self that I’ve constructed, but the real, half-formed human being that I was, in all her inconsistencies, in her arrogance and insecurity and runaway emotionality. Lisa Cohen sees herself as an impassioned crusader, but the reality is that she’s also kind of a narcissist and an asshole, and watching Margaret led me to a painful confrontation with the asshole that I used to be—and in many ways still must be. After all, I’m sitting down to write a personal essay about a time that I watched a movie and had the revelation that that movie was, in fact, really about me. This seems like the kind of thing that a former teenage asshole might be warned off doing, but here we are.
So Lisa is often unlikable—but so are other protagonists in more conventional stories. We have a category for a protagonist with unlikeable qualities: the anti-hero. But the anti-hero is, for all his faults, ultimately a hero. He (it’s almost always a he) may be lazy, or have a mean streak or a drug problem or a criminal bent, but through charm, exceptional competence, or some combination of the two, he always manages to capture the admiration of audiences. Anti-hero narratives give viewers something to root for, usually in one of two directions: either that the anti-hero will succeed in his unscrupulous schemes, or that the he will overcome his demons to become a better man. Even if we don’t like everything an anti-hero does, we like him in spite of ourselves; we never lose sight of his essential magnetism.
I can picture a version of Margaret that might have been more of an anti-hero story—one in which Lisa’s razor-sharp wit and dogged pursuit of justice formed the kind of charm and exceptional competence that made us excuse her for being abrasive. But Margaret isn’t that simple. Lisa does have a lot going for her—she’s observant, articulate, thoughtful, and self-aware—but Lonergan doesn’t bless her with any exceptional genius. And her flaws are manifold and unsexy—she can be, by turns, judgmental and petulant, theatrical and manipulative. “By turns” is, perhaps, the key here. Margaret would have been a more straightforward (and perhaps more commercial) film if Lisa had been flattened and streamlined, if she had been given a core personality made up of a few sympathetic traits and a single tragic flaw.
But the frustrating, subversive, brilliant thing about Lisa is that she’s different from moment to moment.
In the first fifteen minutes of Margaret, we meet several permutations of Lisa. We first see her interact with her geometry teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon). With Mr. Aaron, she flirts, with plausible deniability. When she goes to claim a test from him, she holds eye contact a little too long, and saunters back to her desk with a little swing in her hips. When they have a post-class conference, she slouches in a chair across from him, crossing and uncrossing her legs; in the long shot, we can feel her awareness of just how short her skirt is. She speaks in a slightly higher register with him, trying to project poise. When he agrees to let her cheating slide this time, Lisa breathes, “You are so fair.” We cut immediately to Lisa swaggering down the hallway, beaming at her success. The next shot finds her smoking with a group of friends, when one asks what Mr. Aaron said to her. “Nothing,” she says, her tone flat and acerbic. “Mr. Aaron and I have an understanding.” We get a scene of Lisa in a classroom discussion on current events, where she shows off her rhetorical chops; she raises her hand confidently and speaks with conviction and complex, attorney-like sentence structure. And then we see her with her friend Darren, who clearly has feelings for her. With him, she walks with an extra spring in her step, gushing, feeding off the energy of his attraction. When it seems he might be asking her out on a date, she laughs, and then feigns shock: “Oh my god.” She then prods him with questions that don’t really mean anything, shrugging and scoffing: “What? Why do you look like that?” It’s a perfect bit of acting from Paquin, this moment of getting high on flattery and not knowing exactly what to do with it.
And all this amiable high school minutiae just serves to set up the heights from which Lisa must fall when her flirtatious waving distracts a bus driver who goes on to kill a woman. That woman bleeds to death, furious and confused, in Lisa’s arms, and from then on Lisa finds herself lost. She spends the rest of the film vacillating wildly—sometimes seized with righteous passion, and other times seducing her crushes; sometimes trying to spread kindness to the victim’s friends and family, and other times verbally assaulting her mother.
It might seem, from this description of her behavior, that Lisa’s character throughline is a kind of artifice or calculation. If we see her in so many subtly different modes, we might conclude that Lisa must be a false or manipulative person. But we only notice these differing inflections because we follow her everywhere, and we see the shifts that she makes in her carriage and her voice and her word choice based on her surroundings. We rarely get to experience characters in this way. In a typical movie, we follow our protagonist moving through a plot, a series of connected actions—we only see what’s relevant. In Margaret, we get a picture of Lisa’s whole life, not just her life as it relates to one story. When it comes to Aristotle’s “three unities,” the limitations that he believed made for effective drama (unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action), perhaps the one that we talk about least often is “unity of action.” That’s because most stories play fast and loose with time and place. We usually invoke the three unities when we want to talk about a movie that’s remarkable for using a single location or playing out in real time, because “unity of time” and “unity of place” have become novelties since the time of Greek drama. “Unity of action,” however, has not. We expect our movies to be about a character pursuing one goal, doing one central thing.
This leads me to consider whether I might look like a consistent character if someone were to follow me through one “action”—a relationship, or an issue at work or school. There are versions of the character Lauren Wilford that could read as likable or admirable or heroic if you saw them in a limited context. But it’s uncomfortable to imagine what a few random days in my life might look like if someone were to shoot them and cut the footage into a film. I’d get to see how I acted alone, and then with my husband, and then with coworkers, and family, and strangers. I don’t know exactly what total picture would emerge, but I know there would be contrasts and inconsistencies. I don’t know how viewers of that film would go on to describe the character that they saw—or if they would even feel like they could.
Lisa Cohen is a difficult character to pin down or describe in a sentence, but so many of our great characters are—they just usually happen to be in literature rather than movies. Lisa is just as difficult to describe as Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina or Leopold Bloom or Hamlet. Lisa and Hamlet actually have a good deal in common. Many people, working from faint memories of high school English class, might summarize Hamlet the character as being “melancholic” or “hesitant” or “crazy.” But if you actually go to the text, you’ll find Hamlet oscillating between different versions of himself just as freely as Lisa does. Both Hamlet and Margaret take place in the wake of a shocking death, and both are stories of a bright young person working fitfully towards justice while processing feelings about an indifferent world.
Many critics have argued that Hamlet is an atypical revenge story protagonist because of his circuitous route to vengeance—his “hesitancy,” his “madness.” But Hamlet is just a profoundly astute portrait of a human being trying to act while grieving. Lisa “hesitates” to pursue justice in Margaret for similar reasons: she’s trying to figure out the right thing to do, and to separate the facts from her feelings. And those feelings often cause her to hurt her own cause, just as Hamlet’s do. Hamlet doesn’t eviscerate Ophelia in the “get thee to a nunnery” scene because he’s mad, or performing madness. He tears into Ophelia because his pain has made him into his worst self in that moment, his latent mean streak and misogyny going unchecked. He’s also unfairly cruel to his mother, much like Lisa is unfairly cruel to hers. Sometimes Hamlet thinks big, beautiful thoughts about the world, and sometimes he makes cracks about sex. But he’s always passionate. He’s always, ultimately, trying to right his world’s wrongs. He’s one of the most psychologically realistic characters ever written, and for that, he evades easy characterization. Because he is more than one thing, he feels like the real thing.
I think Hamlet always makes more sense with a younger actor playing Hamlet, because youth effectively dissolves the questions about his “inconsistency.” If he’s 35, it’s harder to reconcile his introspection and seriousness with his raging and wisecracking; you almost have to make up theories about his madness or his calculating nature. It’s so much simpler, and more dramatically effective, to see him as a young person thrashing in the wake of an extreme circumstance, the way that Lisa thrashes.
Lisa’s multiple iterations are a direct result of her youth. Much like I was, she’s painfully self-aware; you can almost see her watching herself from outside her body, horrified but helpless to stop herself. She’s quick to comment on her own behavior and admit embarrassment or regret. She’s a person in search of an identity to call home, surprising herself moment to moment by the things that come out of her mouth. Adults modulate their behavior situationally, but they’ve accumulated enough experience with themselves that they have a kind of core, a center from which they can pivot. Teenagers lack this core, and the experience can lead to a nausea about their identity, a kind of seasickness.
It’s hard to get a read on Lisa because she doesn’t have a read on herself. We don’t know exactly what to root for because we don’t know exactly what she wants. Watching her story unfold is destabilizing and uncomfortable in a way that mimics the discomfort of adolescence itself. The only thing that Lisa really knows about herself is how she feels, which is hardly a stable foundation for action. Watching Margaret puts an ache in the pit of my stomach, because I remember what it was like to yearn to be a whole person, to hope against hope that I was somehow coming across as good, as making sense.
There is a scene in Margaret where a woman calls out Lisa for “dramatizing” her situation; in response Lisa essentially has a panic attack. Hot tears shoot from Anna Paquin’s face and her voice is strained and squeaking and uncontrolled. She pushes words out with all the strength of her lungs, desperate, unhinged.
“I feel so bad about what happened, and I’m trying so hard to do something about it, and I don’t understand why if I say something wrong, you can’t just give me a break.” Then she gets softer, sadder, broken: “But I’m not trying to dramatize anything, I really didn’t know about that trend and I really don’t think I’ve been doing that.” And she really, really doesn’t. Anna Paquin is astonishing here—she is absolutely lost inside herself, sorry and confused and hysterical. Lisa is free falling in that vast space between her idea of herself and the way she has actually acted. I’ve gotten lost in that gap, and I know I must look something like Lisa does here when I find myself there.
It’s hard for me to even watch Margaret because it is so sharp and so unromantic about exactly what it looks like to be passionate but not yet fully formed. When I was putting together this piece, I went flipping through old diaries to try to find a relevant quote, and I was surprised to find that I was actually repulsed by much of what I read. I have always tried to cultivate a generosity toward my younger self, an appreciation for my nascent ideals tempered by an understanding of my developmental limits. But I was shocked to see, in my own writing, how often I was self-centered and mean, and how oblivious I was about it. In the New Yorker recently, Lonergan said, “In some way, a teenager can be—at least in a play or a movie—a metaphor for a grownup, which is a half-formed person coping with the world.” In those diaries, I saw my teenage self as a metaphor for my current self—so passionate, so thoughtful, and so powerless to see her own selfishness, so worried that she’s doing it wrong because she actually is, so often, doing it wrong.
I also wrote a lot of songs in junior high and high school, most of which are equally embarrassing. The lyrics read as me genuinely trying to work some things out about myself, but also inevitably as showing off a little bit. They remind me of the way Lisa drops sentences like, “Not that I want to use this woman’s death as my own personal moral gymnasium.” Because, of course, that’s exactly what Lisa is doing, but she’s simultaneously aware and unaware of it, in a way that is almost as frustrating to her as it is to us as viewers.
One of the songs I wrote as a teenager tried to get at this cognitive dissonance. I knew that I cared about things, and that I had big ideas about the kind of life I wanted to live. But none of that was matching up with the experience I was really having in my day-to-day life, where I knew I was coming off as a bit of a melodramatic smartass.
When it’s midnight, I can write life,
and a notebook holds plan A and B
By the lamplight I can see right
But the daybreak scatters most of me
I hope I am who I am at midnight
In another song, called “Tumble,” I called myself “a cynical, capricious dramatist,” which sounds a lot like Lisa, and also sounds totally insufferable. But that song did come from a place of genuine confusion and pain:
I’m spinning in gravel
And still I can’t stop
I’m coming unraveled
and still I just babble.
At one point, Lisa describes herself as “just this mass of conflicting impulses.” When I was a teenager, I knew this about myself, and I actively longed for the day when I could feel myself moving from any kind of a center, when the waves inside me would die down. And, from the perspective of a decade later, they have, in a relative sense. I do feel a little more stable, a little more whole. But watching Margaret reminds me of how fragile and inaccurate our self-concepts have been and can be. If Lisa is seventeen in Margaret, and the story is meant to take place in 2006, then Lisa would be in her mid-twenties now, just as I am. This thought feels silly to think about a fictional character, but I can’t help but think it, if only for my own sake: I hope she’s found a little more peace. I hope she can see a little more clearly. I hope she’s not done trying to fight for a better world and a better self.