Margaret reopens at the Siskel on Friday | Kenneth Lonergan interview
Wed Feb 15 2012
My relentless advocacy for Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is probably growing tiresome, but this week I've got an excuse: The film reopens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday. I managed to speak to Lonergan by phone about the film, and I think the piece makes for a good primer on the movie—especially for those skeptical about its expansive, messy structure. Lonergan's goal, greatly reduced, is to show a teenager unsettled by her dawning awareness of her insignificance in the world. The main character, Lisa (Anna Paquin), is just one person in a city of 8 million. After she flirts with a bus driver—inadvertently causing an accident that kills a bystander (Allison Janney)—she finds that life offers no relief from her guilt. The incident is simply written off, and the world moves on.
There was a lot of detail I didn't work in, generally because it was spoiler-heavy or hyperspecific. But one item I wish I'd been able to include was Lonergan's discussion of the costume design. We were talking about a fleeting slo-mo interlude in which Lisa is briefly hassled by a group of African-American teens she bumps into on the street. The moment, of course, relates to Lisa's uneasiness with having grown up privileged (as well as her reluctance, initially, to incriminate the working-class bus driver, played by Mark Ruffalo). But Lonergan pointed out an angle I hadn't considered. "I had a discussion with Melissa Toth, the costume designer, about how [Lisa] would dress the next time she went out," he said. "The accident happens on a Friday, and we wondered how she would dress on Monday on her way to school. At first we thought she'd be all covered up. Then we thought, no, no, no—I think maybe she wouldn't. Maybe she just unconsciously thought, 'I'll just do the opposite.' She's dressed in a very skimpy outfit. She's not wearing a bra. And she gets hassled on the street by a bunch of boys."
Her feeling of humiliation, Lonergan explained, adds an inflection to her guilt. "The idea was that she basically is just feeling like a sex criminal in some way," he said. "She was flirting with this bus driver and committed murder." That's just one of many ways to consider an extraordinarily complex and layered character, certainly one of the most convincing teens ever portrayed onscreen. See the film—the run lasts one week, and I'm told tickets for Friday's show are moving more quickly than usual.