On “teachable” moments and unreliable narrators

Posted by Jen Vafidis

At the beginning of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, a teenage boy asks a teenage girl to go to the movies. Not wanting it to turn into a date, she makes him supremely uncomfortable, in that flirty way that destroys young people who are trying to be straight-forward. A few scenes later, the teenage girl is on the phone with another teenage girl and pithily relates this new development in her friendship with the boy. “What’s that about?” the friend laughs. “I have no idea,” the girl replies with hurtful quickness. Even though I’ve been everyone in that situation before, I’d like to say smugly: I would be nicer now that I’m older. I would be more aware of what I was doing than she is, because I’ve been the boy in that situation too. But the teenage girl isn’t unaware of the whole situation. It’s just that she thinks she’s right when I think she’s wrong. And it’s fascinating to watch.

This sort of audience-character relationship works to an insidious degree in narratives like Margaret, the ones about misguided protagonists that we either have been or know from our own lives. It’s dramatic irony for beginners to watch hubris lead to a mess, and it can be so satisfying with that extra personal edge. For me, I’m thinking of the teenage girl in the above vignette, Lisa Cohen as played by Anna Paquin, as glorious and irritating as she can be, in denim skirts and off-the-shoulder tops I am somewhat ashamed to admit I wore when I was in high school. I’m also thinking of Mavis Gary, Charlize Theron’s depressed home-wrecker in Young Adult, a movie with less emotional reality but still a bit to say. Both women are seen in what can only be described as “teachable” moments, meant to facilitate the growing-up process. Either the protagonist is too naive (Lisa) or in arrested development (Mavis). Both are self-centered to an extreme. Both encapsulate an amount of maturity present enough in the majority of human beings to keep you connected to them; in other words, they have qualities we want to have or think we have already. But they also exhibit a fair amount of loathsome qualities that make them into pariahs or, at the very least, serious nuisances to the people they come across. The result is a mixture of comedy and horror that plays upon our expectation that characters might deserve to see the error of their own ways. You don’t follow arcs, but boomerangs from point A on a journey back to point A again. For Mavis this non-arc is classically comedic, the humor in high-to-low shifts in statuses and the obliviousness of the upper class. For Lisa her journey’s crux is a horrific conflict of her own creation so monstrous that you want it dead. When it finally dies, it’s only a temporary quelling of deeper problems that are sure to resurface in different clothes as the character ages and finds other experiences lacking in clear, self-involved sense.

Or I’m just projecting. One of the delights in movies with characters we think we know, especially if they remind us of ourselves, is the drastic change in their emotional impact on different audience members. I found that I hated Lisa, really hated her, because I saw parts of myself in her, and I laughed sympathetically at Mavis, but it just as easily could be the other way around. you could find Young Adult to be the horror film you shouldn’t have seen before going to bed, and you could laugh at the sharp wit of Margaret. Both movies function in both ways and more. They are focused on characters who make everything about them, and they are made especially (transparently, in the case of the marketing of Young Adult; obscurely, in the case of the tragic delay of Margaret‘s release) for people who make everything about them, a quality so universal I don’t even feel the need to apologize for it. Deliciously neither character changes. In Young Adult, the brush with real change is thrilling because it’s a hit and run; Mavis returns to her former self as soon as she finds evidence that she can and should. In Margaret the change doesn’t happen onscreen; we see emotions come to the surface, a climax and an important step toward resolution, but then it’s over. Like in any great monster movie (and the subject of whether Lisa Cohen is a monster is another essay), the status quo returns in the final act with an added anxiety of a threat that could return. The idea that some people can’t ever be the spiritual equivalent of the lessons they learn — and don’t really want to be — is pretty terrifying. Or funny. Really, it depends on how many dick jokes are in there.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and our Tumblr.