I won’t go into how I know because it might get me in trouble, potentially operatic trouble, but the lives of teenage girls are filled with drama. Reading their Facebook profiles makes daytime soaps superfluous. How often have you heard someone accused of being a “drama king?”
I don’t know why this is. I’m a guy. Maybe I’m not meant to understand. At least one other guy has noticed this theater of teenage girls though, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan. He has followed up his marvelous debut You Can Count on Me with the maybe equally impressive drama Margaret, the story of a teenage girl, Lisa (Anna Paquin), who is the star while everyone else is a bit player in the drama that is her life.
One day after insignificant conflict at school and playing a scene that she feels needs a rewrite and another run through where a boy from her school awkwardly asks her for a date; she decides what she wants is a cowboy hat. What she really needs though is some real drama, something worthy of a 17-year-old girl named Lisa to separate her from all the other teenage Lisas in the world.
Turning away from a shop window, she spies a bus driver closing his doors and pulling away from the curb—and wearing a cowboy hat. She immediately starts waving at him and he starts waving back and she starts smiling and a back and forth flirtation ensues and a green light makes its way to yellow and then red unbeknownst to him. A woman starts pushing her shopping stroller out into the crosswalk and, as such tragedies go, in the blink of an eye breaks squeal, bus smacks woman, bus wins.
The scene of Lisa holding the dying woman while bystanders desperately try to stop the bleeding by using a belt for a tourniquet is harrowing—although leavened by a bit of morbid humor. The woman asks Lisa what happened and Lisa says, “You were hit by a bus.” The woman snaps back, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Lisa lies at first and tells police that the light was green, but this bit of real drama gives her life such a boost that she can’t let it go. She tracks down the bus driver and visits him unannounced at his home. She doesn’t like him. Her purpose becomes getting him fired, rendering the crosswalks of New York City safe for future shoppers. (This makes her being the only eyewitness a bit curious. The street was crowded. Maybe none of them were teenage girls also searching for a better dramatist?)
Lisa’s mom, Joan, is an insecure actress. I picture her being as melodramatic as a teen as Lisa. Joan begins dating an opera loving man. She doesn’t much like opera and Lisa thinks it’s just a bunch of people trying to sing as loud as possible. Opera, though, becomes the movie’s most compelling motif. During one of their many fights (actress mom meets teenage daughter), Joan accuses Lisa of turning her life into an opera. Later, they weep in each other’s arms during a performance of The Tales of Hoffmann.
There are plenty of other fine actors in Margaret like Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick, but they are all quite cleverly kept as mere bit players in the life of Lisa.
I know at least one teenage girl who prefers to hang out with the guys. There’s no drama, just a lot of relaxing, movie watching, and videogame playing. She hopes her girl friends don’t find out though. Her life would quickly become worthy of Verdi.
(Todd Ford has been a film nut since 1981. He watches far too many movies through Netflix and enjoys a home life with his wife, two daughters, two dogs and five cats.)