Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
A drama teacher once told me that a good way to go about playwriting is to take a metaphor and run with it. I don’t believe I am making any radical assumptions in saying that playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan’s piece is built around the metaphor of the theatre. The film’s final moments feature stunning shots of New York’s metropolitan opera house. One of the central characters’ struggle for connection and authority is shaped by her career as an actor. The central character is said to have no interest in acting, and yet we even see her working behind the scenes in a school play, before participating in a distinctly theatrical bonding activity.
One could take things a step forward and say that the central metaphor of Margaret is the over-dramatization of one’s story, as in one of the film’s (many) striking scenes, protagonist Lisa Cohen is accused of just that—playing up her struggles at the expense of others. Viewing Margaret in this light makes it a good companion piece for Lonergan’s later (more successful) film Manchester by the Sea. Both are stories about dealing with guilt and grief: one told from the perspective of an outspoken, big city teenager, the other from the perspective of an emotionally-suppressed man returning to the small town of his birth. One could also go so far as to say that Manchester by the Sea is the story of Margaret “antagonist” Gerald Maretti (to say why would spoil the film).
But to call Margaret a film about over-dramatization, about self-aggrandizing, would be to miss another element of Lonergan’s style—his neutrality. In its three hours, the film finds times, amongst other things, for characters to debate Israel-and-Palestine. The debate is believably written, and I certainly think the pro-Palestinian side comes out looking better. But the function of this debate is not to teach a (non-sequitorial) political lesson, but to show the complexity of what it means to “root” for or against real humans. For instance, we see the mostly likeable love-interest of Lisa’s mother, make a soft-spoken, articulate intervention on behalf of the Palestinians, only to make a brief, but unsettling anti-semitic slip-of-the-tongue, when he is about to “win” the debate.
The allegation that Lisa is “over-dramatic” is similarly portrayed in a neutral light. Lisa, 17, is unquestionably overdramatic (and perhaps drama seeking) in her tendency to yell, argue vociferously in her classes, make questionable spur-of-the-moment decisions, and, most centrally to the film, advocate passionately for a cause mere days after having held an entirely different moral viewpoint. At the same time, Lisa’s recent-life is unquestionably shaped by trauma and instability, making the characterization of her as overdramatic seem inadequate and even insulting. Therefore, when the accusation of over-drama is explicitly levelled at Lisa, an audience is neither inclined to fault the woman for making the remark, nor Lisa for her passionate denunciation of the criticism. Rather the audience is invited to sympathize with both parties in this short-lived, but important conflict.
Margaret is a story of many stories. It is a story of character’s who are too deep and too real to have full plot-arcs. It is a dark drama, and a tonally neutral tour of New York City. As audiences watch the picturesque shots of skyscrapers and New York crowds they can read these city-scapes as attempts to aggrandize the stories of characters by setting them amongst the backdrop of the most famous city in the world; or they can read them as a sign that many truly powerful and dark stories are hidden in the countless apartments of New York. Both interpretations are correct.