Anna Paquin Makes Each Moment Count in ‘Margaret’

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CHICAGO – The passion of adolescence, so driven by the emerging intellect merged with fierce hormonal obligations, is a subject tailor made for the movies. The drama and distinction in “Margaret” is the nearly perfect portrayal of the main character played by Anna Paquin, against the backdrop of New York City.

“Margaret” (the title refers to a significant poem in the film) is not shy about comparing the teenage circumstance to operatic tendencies – it even uses the New York Metropolitan Opera Company in climatic flourishes. Anna Paquin’s Lisa Cohen character is used as a metaphor for youth, in all its mistakes, awkward moments and left turns. But at the same time, it is a reminder of how youthful passion can get things done, and in effecting that change can produce valuable life experience. It seems we’ve all been in Lisa Cohen’s shoes – maybe not as extreme – at some point in our lives, and the decisions that were made associated with those moments in can eventually formulate the people we are today.

Anna Paquin’s Lisa is an upper middle class student, going to a private, high level high school in New York City. This is the type of school that promotes free and radical thinking, often in close quartered discussion groups. Lisa is very argumentative in those sessions, but isn’t above procuring answers for harder subjects like geometry, taught by Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon). She is living a carefree life in the Big Apple, until she participates in and witnesses a bus accident, which kills an unsuspecting female pedestrian named Monica (Allison Janney).

Mother and Child: J. Smith Cameron as Mother Joan and Anna Paquin as the Title Character ‘Margaret’
Mother and Child: J. Smith Cameron as Mother Joan and Anna Paquin as Lisa in ‘Margaret’
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

She has a hard time shaking the incident, even going to the memorial service, moderated by the victim’s best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin). Lisa decides to do something about it, and enlists Emily in a lawsuit of the New York bus system. This pains her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), a notable Broadway actress, who is having problems of her own with a new lover (Jean Reno). In the chaotic weeks to follow, everything seems to be happening at once, which greatly alters Lisa’s isolated teenage universe.

New York City is the perfect background for this morality tale, and director Kenneth Lonergan (”You Can Count on Me”) relishes the series of close-up human studies on the teeming streets. The face-in-the-crowd eventually lands on Lisa, and the rest of her story becomes in the only story in Manhattan. This is a post-9/11 New York, and the residents still fathom it within the structure of the society. When Lisa argues geo-politics in one of her classes, it is with the flow of the city’s angst.

The cast is visceral and completely supporting in this challenging story. Lesser known character actor J. Smith-Cameron exhibits amazing range as Lisa’s put-upon mother. She reluctantly enters a relationship with an admirer from the theater, opens an important Broadway show and has to try to guide her off-track daughter. The star power of Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick add punctuation points to their character parts, Broderick even expressing a slight reminder of his teacher persona in “Election.” French actor Jean Reno commands each scene as the suitor for Lisa’s mother and Jeannie Berlin is substantial as Emily, the victim’s best friend, who bluntly becomes Lisa’s partner in the hope of keeping the memory of her friend alive.

Anna Paquin understands Lisa Cohen completely, and gives her a humanity and quality, no matter what type of scene she plays. She is asked to do everything in this film, and interprets director Lonergan’s script with the full arsenal of emotional range. She is particularly brilliant when her character doesn’t understand something, and lashes out inappropriately at the unfairness of it all, even if she has caused the unbalanced situation. Her desire to lose her virginity during the crisis is another deft touch, and that moment is both erotic and tense, which is rarely handled well in American films.

Through a Glass: Matt Damon as Mr. Aaron and Anna Paquin in  ‘Margaret’
Through a Glass: Matt Damon as Mr. Aaron and Anna Paquin in ‘Margaret’
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The length of the film is a modest problem, as well as the relationship and aftermath of Lisa and Matt Damon’s Mr. Aaron. Obviously the writer/director’s vision was attempted in the final cut, and in the film’s odd history – it was shot beginning in 2005 – many edits were applied. The soft center of the story does weaken it a bit, but the emotional journey is still intact, and the performance of Ms. Paquin never lets down this urban story of human connections.

Somehow this should be required viewing to every member of the senior class in the USA. Despite Lisa’s social standing and life in New York City, she still is a relatable and angst-ridden teenage hero, and her path to adulthood is marred by the same potholes and decision-making challenges that all will face going up that same path.

“Margaret” continues its limited release in Chicago beginning October 7th. See local listings for theaters and show time. Featuring Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, Jeannie Berlin, J. Smith-Cameron, Jean Reno, Kieran Culkin and Allison Janney. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald,

manny world's picture


Oh man! She was my teenage hero.

Manny be down's picture


A very human film that shows the quality of this woman.

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