11 December 2011

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

I didn't really feel like going to the cinema today, much less to see a 2h30 epic in the poky little Panton Street Odeon, but having missed the reviews of Margaret when it was first released, when I finally caught up, it sounded like the sort of film I might like. And as it's only being shown in a handful of central London cinemas, Panton Street it was.

I don't know much of the back story regarding Margaret's release, other than that various problems, including in the editing, have delayed its release for several years. And I'm still not quite sure whether I liked it. Despite all the editing, the film still clocked in at 150 minutes and while it didn't drag at all--there were far too many barely linked sub-plots and minor characters for that--it felt like there should have been a much more efficient way of telling the same story.

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a 17-year-old who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her stage actress mother and her younger brother. She attends a posh prep school on a half scholarship and makes good grades, although her strong and sometimes ruthless opinions often get her into trouble. She's not very good at geometry but persuades geeky Darren (John Gallagher Jr) to help her cheat and flirts with her friendly geometry teacher (Matt Damon). Her father (played by Kenneth Lonergan, who also directed the movie) lives in California with his girlfriend. She and her father get on well, in their semi-detached way, but she doesn't care much for his girlfriend. She tries to shake off Darren's advances, although sometimes leads him on, and instead seems to like Paul (Kieran Culkin), who has a girlfriend but who is easily talked into taking Lisa's virginity, in what is an awkward but wonderfully realistic teenage sex scene.

This might be enough drama for one teenager but Lisa seems to crave more. Towards the start of the film, a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) ploughs through a red light, crushing a woman, Monica (Allison Janney), crossing the street. She dies in Lisa's arms before the ambulance can make it. But it was Lisa who was distracting the bus driver, running alongside the bus because she wanted to ask him something. Perhaps because of this, she tells the police that the light was green and the accident wasn't the driver's fault. Overwhelmed by her own guilt, Lisa tracks down the executor of the dead woman's estate (she had very little family; only a cousin from out of state), Monica's friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin), eventually admitting her own role in the accident and encouraging Emily to seek justice against the driver. She becomes so obsessed with this notion of justice that her relationship with her mother deteriorates rapidly, as do her grades.

And so it continues for another two hours, at the end of which, there isn't much resolution. In itself, this isn't a problem but it felt like some of the characters and some of the scenes could have been culled entirely. We see long sections of some of Lisa's classes, with Lisa and her classmates getting into heated political debates. In English, meanwhile, despite the attempts of her teacher (Matthew Broderick) to interest her in Shakespeare, she often has no comment. She prefers her own drama. There were also too many quirky, overly opinionated characters, I felt, which meant that a number of scenes consisted of people talking over one another, not listening to one another and getting way too angry and emotional way too quickly.

I did think it was an interesting film and raised a number of interesting issues but equally, I felt it was overly ambitious, trying to do too many things at once and, as a consequence, not always doing an adequate job. Paquin was sometimes a little more hysterical than necessary and I'm not sure she could quite pull off 17, even back in 2005, when Margaret was filmed. As for the other characters, I'm not sure we saw enough of them to pick any stand-outs. The script also felt as though it might have been partly improvised; at least, at times it felt a bit clunky and repetitive, with characters having the same old fights again and again, with little progression.

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