Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Margaret: teach your children well

Posted By on 02.22.12 at 02:50 PM

Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Kenneth Lonergan
  • Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Kenneth Lonergan
This week the Bleader presents a series of commentaries on Kenneth Lonergan's drama Margaret (2011), which screens through Thursday at Gene Siskel Film Center.

Watching Margaret for the second time this weekend, I was struck by how much screen time is taken up by teachers. The main character, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), is an upperclassman at a place she describes as "a private school for rich Jews" (if memory serves), and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan includes numerous scenes of her classes, which are relatively small and all seem to center on student discussion. These scenes enlarge the movie's frame of reference beyond the main plot—the horrifying bus accident that leaves Lisa guilt-ridden and determined to punish the driver (Mark Ruffalo)—and touch on such weighty subjects as man's relationship with God and the conflict between radical Islam and the West. Even more important, Lisa has dealings outside class with two of her teachers—John (Matthew Broderick), who teaches English, and Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon), who teaches geometry—that reflect on the main story.

By far the most explosive classroom scenes take place in Lisa's social studies class, which has two instructors and places the students in a circle facing each other. Lisa, who would have been about 12 when the Twin Towers went down, seems like a natural antagonist for Angie (Hina Abdullah), who grew up in Syria and sympathizes with the Palestinians. The movie was shot in fall 2005, as the number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq reached the 2,000 mark, and the dialogue between the kids seems as shrill, angry, and judgmental as anything you'd see on a political TV show. It's hard to take Lisa and Angie's charges and rebuttals too seriously, because these are extremely privileged kids, but of course adolescents have a heightened sense of injustice. And, as we ultimately learn, Lisa is capable of lacerating herself as mercilessly as she does the other girl.

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Lonergan and Matthew Broderick are old friends—in fact, Broderick reportedly loaned the writer-director a millon dollars to edit the film when it was stuck in legal limbo—and he contributes a memorable comic performance as the stodgy English teacher, a tired little man who can't think as fast as his kids. As John and a stubborn student argue back and forth over the meaning of a line from King Lear, the teacher keeps snatching little sips from a juice box and little bites from a sandwich, as if he needs a little fuel just to make it to the bell, or maybe just time to think. Later, as he's walking through the park to a school soccer game, he catches Lisa and a pal smoking a joint. "Come on, guys!" he whines. "You can't be smoking a J before a school soccer game!" Far from chastened, they burst out laughing, and as he walks on he can hear them giggling behind his back over his old-fashioned slang.

Lisa respects Mr. Aaron a lot more, though she seems to have the upper hand over him as well. When he keeps her after class to ask if she cheated on a test, she crosses and recrosses her legs flirtatiously, complaining that she'll never need to know geometry anyway, and, incredibly, he lets her off with a warning. Later Lisa seeks Mr. Aaron's advice regarding the bus accident (though their meeting is represented by a single shot outside the window of a restaurant, the dialogue scene presumably having wound up on the cutting room floor). Finally she comes to his home, seduces him (another scene that's weirdly truncated), then turns cold and leaves; she seems impelled less by sexual desire than by the need to corrupt him, to make him as guilty as she feels.

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Maybe someday, if Lonergan is ever able to release his original, three-hour cut on video, we'll find out what Mr. Aaron had to say in the restaurant, and in bed. But even in the release version, his story line is critical to Margaret and explains why Lonergan spends so much time with teachers. In high school, we look to them not just for information but for ideals—especially Lisa, who knows she's done something terribly wrong in causing another person's death and is about to learn how wrong the world can be. It's a lesson her instructors can't teach her, or save her from.

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