Although it’s been granted something of a new lease on life thanks to a fervent get out the vote campaign by a small but vocal group of film critics, chances are much of the film going public is still unaware of MARGARET. Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to YOU CAN COUNT ON ME was completed years ago, but legal battles over the cut Lonergan was contractually obligated to deliver seemed to indicate that the film might never be released. In the end, the studio, Fox Searchlight, signed off on a 150 minute version of the film, supervised by longtime Lonergan supporter Martin Scorsese, and dumped it into a couple of theaters in New York and L.A. for a few days last fall. Understandably appalled that a filmmaker of Lonergan’s stature could be subjected to such treatment, certain prominent critics began to champion the film, with a TeamMargaret trend gaining traction on twitter and other sites. Karina Longworth of the LA Weekly declared it the best film of 2011, others were similarly impressed, and the film’s momentum began to grow.
This is all to the good, as MARGARET is an impressive picture by almost any standard. If you know the backstory, it’s not hard to envision where cuts may have been made. Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo both have very little screen time for actors of their caliber, and Kieran Culkin shows up for one memorably awkward sequence then disappears. Whether of not Lonergan was completely satisfied with the version released (for the record, he claims the released version has his full endorsement), his movie offers insights into the human condition that are rarely seen in American movies, much less ones released by a corporate studio.
With a staggering performance by Anna Paquin at its core, MARGARET takes a fairly straightforward scenario and expands it to a master class in human behavior. Longergan’s playwrighting background serves him well here, as he weaves a tale of a typically self-absorbed teenager who’s suddenly shocked into coming to terms with the realities of life and death.
After witnessing a fatal bus accident first hand, 17 year old Lisa Cohen (Paquin) has come face to face with a world far removed from her life of privilege on Manhattan’s upper West side. Her Broadway actress mother, while not unconcerned, gives a lot more attention to her performances on stage. Her absentee father (played nicely by Lonergan himself) has similar good intentions but lives a continent away in Santa Monica. Plagued by guilt over her role in the accident (she was flirting with the bus driver, causing him to take his eyes off the wheel), she embarks on a journey to get the driver (Ruffalo) fired, thinking that might ease the sting and bring closure.
Along the way she’s also plagued by typical adolescent trials (experimenting with sex and drugs, faltering grades), and a growing horror at her own inability to bend New York’s criminal justice system to her will. The biggest lesson she learns is one of the hardest for any teenager. Even though it certainly seems so, the world does not revolve around her. In one of the film’s many wrenching scenes, Lisa is berated by the best friend of the victim for her incessant meddling in a situation she knows nothing about.
Paquin, who, let’s not forget, won an Oscar at the tender age of 11, hits all of these notes and more without missing a beat. Taking cues from her actress mother, she’s quick witted, precocious, and often speaks in rapid fire sentences that serve to mask her own confusion. Those who only know the actress from HBO’s overheated TRUE BLOOD will marvel at the work she does here.
While Paquin will deservedly garner most of the attention, Lonergan’s skills as a writer can’t be understated. Every actor in MARGARET has the privilege of playing a flawed, complex character, and Lonergan’s dialogue is full of insight without sounding artificial.
MARGARET doesn’t offer easy answers, but Lonergan manages to conclude the film on a moving note of reconciliation. Someday we may see an extended version of MARGARET emerge on DVD or Blu-Ray, but for now, audiences are fortunate to be able to see the film at all. Catch it if you can.
At press time, MARGARET’s run at the Cinefamily on Fairfax has been extended through Thursday, Februrary 8th. For tickets and showtimes visit www.cinefamily.org