These days, Anna Paquin isn't known for much else other than being True Blood's resident fairy/damsel in distress/vampire aphrodisiac, but in Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, audiences will be reminded of Paquin's pre-HBO days, in which she was frequently lauded for her acting chops. As an unavoidably jaded 17-year-old living on the Upper West Side (yes, this film could, perhaps at times, double as a Lady Gaga biopic), Lisa Cohen (Paquin) finds herself grappling with a wave of emotions and moralistic interpretations after she causes a traffic accident near Broadway and the 70s.
Feeling guilty for distracting the driver of the bus (Mark Ruffalo), Lisa initially gives the police a statement that describes the traffic light as being green rather than red, fearing that any account to the contrary would destroy the bus driver's life. In the final minutes of the victim's (Allison Janney) life, Lisa is the one she clings to--in a literal and figurative manner. As the crowd of people surrounding them watches and waits for the ambulance to arrive, the wounded woman tells Lisa to call her daughter, also named, in a kismet twist, Lisa. By the time the ambulance arrives, it is too late.
Racked by the compunction of her lie--and of partly causing the accident--Lisa embarks on a strange spiral, one that involves losing her virginity to her private school's token bad boy (Kieran Culkin), verbally attacking a fellow student over the agenda of Arab nations, sleeping with her math teacher, arguing with her mother over the meaninglessness of everything and, in a scene that could have been extracted from a Shakespeare play, turning on a sink only to hallucinate blood coming out of it, immediately followed by the presence of Monica's ghost.
Her obsession with bringing about some sort of justice for Monica's death manifests in the form of a lawsuit against the MTA (and honestly, who doesn't want to sue them on a regular basis upon viewing the weekend schedule for public transportation?). With the help of Monica's best friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), Lisa is able to procure the services of a lawyer. As Lisa becomes increasingly enmeshed in the life of a dead woman, Emily questions her intense interest and condemns her for treating someone she didn't know like a supporting pawn in a carefully constructed dramatic play. This accusation all leads back to the film's title, taken from a poem called "Spring and Fall: To A Young Child" by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
In this poem, the opening introduces us to a young girl named Margaret, who is affected by the most minuscule of occurrences, even the falling of leaves. The narrator of the poem foretells that soon "as the heart grows older/It will come to such sights colder." And, upon seeing these sights, Margaret's reaction will inevitably be stoic as she will have grown accustomed to the ways of the world. This is obviously the parallel for Lisa, who is still hyper-sensitive in spite of living in New York City and is not yet immune to the cruel realities this bus accident has shown her. The poem concludes with the line, "It is Margaret you mourn for," meaning that Margaret mourns the youthful version of herself that was actually sensitive and empathetic. The line is even read in the movie by Lisa's English teacher, Mr. Van Tassel (Matthew Broderick, the number one proponent of acting in New York-based projects), so as to subtly underscore this theme.
And, if you're questioning Paquin's casting as something of a mirror to the "youthful" character in "Spring and Fall," bear in mind that, while she is 29 now, she was 22 when the film first went into production, thus it isn't that much of a stretch for her to be playing a 17-year-old. Directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan, the film took years to be distributed, and may never have seen the light of day without the help of Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who cut the film down to size (even though it still clocks in at 150 minutes). With this in mind, Margaret comes across as mildly dated, portraying a New York rife with the freshness of a post-9/11 mindset, basically equating with sadness and suspicion.