Margaret Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan Cast: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Allison Janney Running Time: 2 hrs 29 mins Rating: R Release Date: October 7, 2011 (Chicago)
PLOT: A regular teenager's (Paquin) life is changed forever when she indirectly causes a bus (driven by Ruffalo) to run over and kill a woman (Janney) on the street. While the rest of her teenage years continue to play out in regular order, she struggles to deal with the event, and with the manner in which the bus driver and the victim’s family handle such a tragedy.
WHO'S IT FOR? Art house fans who like movies that require long, contemplative walks immediately after having viewed them. You may not love this movie, but you'll be thinking about it.
The saga behind Margaret is worthy of a Moneyball-like drama, this one concerning a champ re-designated underdog after nightmarish difficulties stood in the way of his labor of pure love.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan intended for this movie to come in 2005, five years after the successful release of his beautiful debut You Can Count on Me. While Margaret only took three months to film, the film was stuck in post-production for a scary amount of time, as Lonergan essentially couldn’t agree with his producer Gary Gilbert (who also brought Garden State to the masses) on a final cut of the movie. Having knocked it out of the park with You Can Count on Me Lonergan is the rare second-time director with “final cut” privileges – so long as the movie is under 150 minutes, he can make the final call.
Such disagreements lead to two lawsuits, with the studio suing Gilbert, Gilbert suing the studio, etc. During such legal sparing, so sat Margaret on the shelf, as Lonergan continued to fine-tune it, receiving help from Martin Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s even rumored that Matthew Broderick gave Lonergan somewhere around a million dollars to help him finish the feature.
Six years after its original intended time, Margaret is now in limited theaters, and with a horrific backstory to boot. But it feels necessary here to share its story; more necessary than a lot of movies. After all, what could have been driving Lonergan to stay so particular to his vision, throughout six years and multiple different cuts? What’s so important for Lonergan to say that he insisted on 149 minutes of running time to explore it? What could he have been fighting for so desperately?
Of course, because Fox Searchlight wants to bury this film and never again return to its grave, it has received extremely slim promotion. Margaret was only given its release date of today a month ago. (This might explain why only 600+ people saw it in Los Angeles or New York last week during its premiere week). But don’t let poor marketing deter you from seeing one of the best movies this year.
In Margaret, Anna Paquin plays Lisa, a typical teenager. Her parents are divorced, her mother (J. Cameron Smith) works nights (as an actress, mind you). Lisa has a crush on the handsome math teacher (Matt Damon), flirts with boys and drugs, and sometimes does such at the same time.
Lisa is a difficult character. She screams a lot, she says things that she doesn’t understand the ramifications of (like when she calls her older friend “strident”), and she thinks adults should tolerate her behavior whether they agree with it or not. On script, she is the perfect molding of a teenager, without any bullsh*t quirks or simple clique associations.
On screen, Lisa is brilliantly brought to life by Paquin, who immerses herself in this role with endless intensity. Working with a tall order of emotional scenes that often have her crying and screaming around adults that she feels equal to, Paquin sells every one of her freak-outs, grabbing the audience with her as she encounters extraordinary circumstances.
Placed in such heavy predicaments, Lisa learns some extraordinary things about humanity, which are in turn especially striking statements by Lonergan to us about human nature. A scene in which Lisa confronts Maretti about the accident, and asks him to admit responsibility, is especially emotionally disturbing for Lisa, and subsequently for us.
The unique power behind the beauty of Margaret is that Lonergan aims to have us take a second look at not just the movie’s world, but also our own world, yet without the “corrupted” perspectives of our maturity. Lonergan wants us to re-examine our entire nature through the eyes of a regular teenager, with her naiveté and immaturity intact. He’s able to accomplish such an effective feat with Paquin’s magnificent surrogate performance.
The perspectives that Margaret wrestles with concerning guilt and selfishness are profound, along with his film-long discussion about whether aging actually tampers with a person’s humanity (something even debated in one of the film’s high school scenes). As a student says in the Margaret. “Teenagers aren’t corrupted like adults … they haven’t had a chance to burn out.”
Margaret is full of an excellent cast of “burn outs,” who make small yet poignant contributions to the “opera” that becomes Lisa’s life. Notable names like Allison Janney and Mark Ruffalo have only one or two scenes in the film, but their time is well spent for service of both the crushing drama, and of maintaining the high standard of acting within the film; Both are used in pivotal emotional moments. Working with such a natural script, the two are highly resonant in just their few minutes on-screen.
Matthew Broderick peeks into the movie for a few scenes as one of Lisa’s teachers, and stands to raise the movie’s direct literary questions (he is the one who reads the poem that inspires the movie’s title). Matt Damon appears briefly as Lisa’s teacher crush, but is not in possession of any star power. (If you’re expecting to see a lot of him in Margaret, don’t.)
Lonergan’s potential as a writer/director are not limited to making his actors do great things – his cinematic sense is just as beautiful, and allows the messages of Margaret to come through earnestly without being preachy. The film is colored with beautiful segments of slow motion, such as when Lisa is walking through New York City while a perfectly chosen piece of music, Tarrega’s “Recuerdos De La Alhambra,” plays.
Lonergan shows his affection for New York City, and of its many diverse inhabitants, with calm cinematography that usually captures the city at night, or look up at the skyscrapers during daytime (a possible nudging for the viewer of connecting the movie’s tragedy and 9/11).
The ambition of Margaret can be hard to wrap one’s self around – the running time can be a little heavy, and there are moments where the film seems to bring too much focus on the legal aspects of its center tragedy. Once the film’s other components become clear, and feel united in a Lonergan’s interest with the teenager, we can only be glad that Lonergan fought through his own real life creative tragedy to finally deliver his own special work of art.
With such length and depth, Margaret even had me considering a lower score, but the movie’s size was too resist looking into, especially when keeping in mind Lonergan’s efforts to make things exactly the way they are now. Now, I love this movie the more I think about it; the many topics on Margaret’s wide thematic palette have such strong connections, and within an original American film. It’s impossible not to cherish.
Margaret is a beautiful opera of our modern age, featuring a more than award-worthy performance from Anna Paquin. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s ambition through tragedy has ultimately left him with something magnificent.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10