Margaret isn't the name of the main character, but a reference to a character that teacher Matthew Broderick talks about in a scene (from King Lear if memory serves), but it's a crucial scene even without naming the character so outright. The discussion in this high school classroom is about how the Gods view human beings - are they to be squashed, are they insignificant? What of it? There are some deep opinions on this - from a couple of high school students, not Broderick's character, who ultimately stops the talk from going deeper into what consciousness is to human beings and what Gods may or may not think of that. It's also a very important scene since, without underlining it (and Kenneth Lonergan is a filmmaker who doesn't need to), pinpoints part of what makes this film so special: how can we know what Gods think of us, or if it's about "sport" or whatever the term is in the quotation from the play. We only can know ourselves, and the world that we are in. Lisa does. Painfully so, it would seem.
Margaret is basically Lonergan's Crime and Punishment, and like Dostoyevsky's tale of epic woe, this story has its share of opera - but explicit in the film's text (at one point another character angrily points out to our protagonist she think's she's in one), and in the style, like a high-rising symphony that uses New York to a degree that is almost beyond compare (well, 'almost', I mean, you remember Woody Allen's Manhattan? Different symphony, similar idea). Unlike a Dostoyevsky though, this "hero" of ours didn't kill anyone... well, not exactly. The inciting incident, as we might say in screen writing jargon, is one day when Lisa is walking down a sidewalk in Manhattan wanting to get a cowboy hat. She notices a bus driver wearing such a hat and as he is driving slowly down the street she tries to get his attention. Where did he get that hat? He tries to get her away from the bus, not in a mean way but since it's, you know, his job. Lo and behold, a stop-light is ahead, turning red, and poor Alison Janney is about to cross the street. She's hit, she lays dying, Lisa goes over to her, and she's dead.
This opens up some good room for conflict right off the bat, but this could also easily turn into a Chicken Soup for the Soul type of deal, where things get rushed into the moral argument about who did what and why. For Lisa though, and this is where, for me, just a touch (but more than enough) of the Dostoyevsky kicks in: what we do makes a difference, and for something like this, it makes a huge one. Lisa knows she's at fault, partially, for distracting the driver, and at the scene of the accident gives a false statement. She's shaken, it's partly understandable (at least it seemed to me, and to a certain look between herself and the driver, played by Mark Ruffalo, an actor who does so much with a character who is only in the film for basically an extended walk-on), but it haunts her.
What I loved, mostly looking back, is that Lonergan makes it about this conflict, but he takes his time. This is in the extended cut, mind you, and perhaps it's the same in the theatrical one. But notice in this first hour of the film, before even when the central incident that sets this story in motion is fully addressed in the conventional terms of 'what comes next': It's about this world more than anything else, how no matter what we do that seems very big and powerful, whether for good or bad (in this case bad), the world goes on. In a scene at a diner where Lisa tries to break up with her kinda-sort-not-really boyfriend, we see a shot that goes in slowly on her face with a deliberate zoom-in, and until we get close enough to her, and then the shots then go into cross-cutting between herself and the teenage guy, most of the dialog that is audible is from other people in the restaurant, specifically an old couple of women talking over soup. This isn't a technical accident, far as I could tell, but a choice, and it's not the first time it happens.
Lisa's journey is viewed many times as if she's both a part of a bigger picture, this city filled with so many people and so many big buildings, flooded by symphonic music that Lonergan puts as a backdrop for her journey. But she, too, is going on a significant part of her life that will changer her forever. She is not a 100% sympathetic character, either. Who is in Lonergan's world? The conversations/arguments she has with her mother in the film, played by J Smith-Cameron, can almost be painful to watch just because of how each side has their points, argues them with deep levels of emotion, and it feels real, both in what they say and how they act. While Lonergan paints on a fairly big canvas, his aims are intimate, personal, and meant to bring out truth in relationships, be it who people have sex with, to what life and death means, or how people act in a classroom when arguing things like political unrest or morality in Shakespeare. Even in small things like those, what we do makes a difference.
It's easy to say that the film is very much a post-9/11 movie, down to it being shot in New York city and written not too soon after the attacks in 2003. But I think Lonergan doesn't want to put this tale into any specific time frame, even though it is contemporary and modern in other small ways. It's a morality play that takes it time building up and paying attention to its people, how they speak and every thing that they do which mounts up to something else. Most impressive of all though is that here is a film where people, characters, can talk intelligently, but not in that way that comes goes like Aaron Sorkin's scripts. Here everyone has their own voice, something to say, so that when this character comes up against her own sense of right and wrong, and what she's done wrong vs. other people, and other morality and temperaments, it counts.
Helpful too is Paquin's performance, which is fiery and full of p*ss and vinegar, so to speak. Sometimes it almost can be TOO much of that, a quality to her that works for character like Sookie Stackhouse, where for Lisa, at least once or twice for me, it borders on being so much into that passionate way about her. And yet, I can't fault her for that, any more I can for the writing. She grows as a character, even as her determination to try and set things right, if only for herself, that she becomes her own sort of self-made tragic figure. Is she just a small figure made by the Gods for sport to be played with? I dunno. But at least she's trying. So is Mark Ruffalo's character, and Lisa's mother, even her father who we see for just a few moments from California on the telephone. This is a world, in Margaret, that no one is really a villain, or a hero. People are too complicated for that, and if nothing else Paquin does an effective job of relaying that conflict for the audience.