Written by: Kenneth Lonergan.
Starring: Anna Paquin (Lisa Cohen), J. Smith-Cameron (Joan), Mark Ruffalo (Maretti), Jeannie Berlin (Emily), Jean Reno (Ramon), Sarah Steele (Becky), John Gallagher Jr. (Darren), Cyrus Hernstadt (Curtis), Allison Janney (Monica Patterson), Kieran Culkin (Paul), Matt Damon (Mr. Aaron), Stephen Adly Guirgis (Mitchell), Betsy Aidem (Abigail), Adam Rose (Anthony), Nicholas Theodore Grodin (Matthew), Rosemarie DeWitt (Mrs. Maretti), Matthew Broderick (John), Hina Abdullah (Angie), Olivia Thirlby (Monica), Kenneth Lonergan (Karl), Michael Ealy (Dave the Lawyer).
Kenneth Lonergan’s long delayed, barely released Margaret became a critical cause celebre late last year when critics rallied beyond the troubled production to try to get the studio behind it, Fox Searchlight, it give it a chance in the awards season and at the box office. Despite all the headlines the so-called “Team Margaret” generated, it really had no discernible impact. Now, for those of us who don’t live in one of the few markets that Margaret was released in, we can finally see the film on DVD to see what all the fuss was about. But unlike many overhyped movies, Margaret was worth the wait. This really is one of the best films of 2011 – and will hopefully finally get the audience it deserves.
Margaret opens with a horrific, and graphic, bus accident that leaves a woman (Allison Janney) bleeding to death on the streets. Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), holds the dying woman in her arms, and gets blood on her hands – both literally and figuratively. She feels that she is responsible for what happened, but she was running alongside the bus, trying to get the drivers (Mark Ruffalo) attention, causing him to run a red light and hitting the innocent woman in the intersection. Yet when she`s interviewed on the scene, and then later, she lies – telling the investigators that the light was green when the bus entered the intersection. It is this decision that will haunt her for the rest of the film.
Margaret tries to do a lot of things during its running time – which has led some to argue the movie is disjointed or flawed, and probably explains why the studio had doubts about the film in the first place. To me though, Margaret is a great movie because it is not narrowly focused on any one subject, but rather is a complex examination of Lisa, and the world around her. But it is the fact that Margaret tries – and to me succeeds – in doing so much that makes it one of the best films of the year.
On one level, the movie is a moral puzzle, as Lisa tries to figure out what the right thing to do is – should she tell the truth, and let the consequences be what they are, or should she just let it go, and let the bus driver return to his normal life? When she finally decides, after much consultation, to tell the truth, she first visits the bus driver in person – the only scene in the movie where Mark Ruffalo gets to speak. The movie wisely leaves it to the audience to try and figure out how he feels about it. Does he really believe, as he states, that it was simply and accident and he’s blameless? Or is he simply trying to protect himself and his family? The scene, which comes almost exactly half way through the movie, becomes a turning point for the film. Right around that time, Lisa meets Emily (the brilliant Jeannie Berlin), who was the best friend (perhaps more?) of the dead woman, who encourages Lisa to tell the truth, and who Lisa begins to trust more than anyone. This underlines another part of the movie, which is the story of the strained relationship between teenage girls and their mothers. Lisa’s mother Joan (J. Cameron Smith) is trying her best to help Lisa – but finds herself rebuffed at every turn. True, Joan is busy with a new play she’s starring in, and a new boyfriend (Jean Reno), but Lisa barely gives her a chance. In Emily, Lisa sees an alternate mother – one who seems to care and understand her more. Yet, the best scene in the movie may just be when Emily finally calls Lisa on her “self-mythologizing” – and rips into her something fierce. This serves to confuse Lisa even more.
The moral puzzle of the bus accident and the mother-daughter relationships – both real and surrogate – are the two main story threads, but there are others. A number of fascinating classroom conversations about the post 9/11 world that get heated, another classroom conversation about Shakespeare is just as fascinating. A too close teacher-student relationship between Lisa and Mr. Aaron, a painfully realistic and awkward portrait of losing one’s virginity. Lisa trying desperately to connect with her distant – both emotionally and geographically – father (played by Lonergan himself). Margaret develops all of these story threads to certain degrees, and they all make the movie a more complex – more complete portrait of this teenage girl trying to figure things out.
It must be said that Anna Paquin delivers an amazing performance as Lisa – she deserved to at least be nominated for an Oscar last year for it. This is a difficult performance because it forces her to hit so many different notes, and she handles it all remarkably. Like many teenage girls, her actions often seem to wildly impulsive – but they make sense in the moment, which for teenagers, is really all you can ask. She is supported by an amazing cast – particularly Jeannie Berlin, whose pain is real, and J. Cameron Smith, as a mother trying so hard to juggle so many balls, and failing at times. But even the smallest roles are filled with great performances, in what is one of the best ensembles in recent memory.
Kenneth Lonergan made his directorial debut in 2000 with the great You Can Count on Me, which was a much simpler, more straight forward film than Margaret. He is a playwright, turned script doctor, turned filmmaker. With Margaret, he establishes that You Can Count on Me was no fluke – he is the real deal – one of the most interesting filmmakers with only two films on his resume working right now. It took a long time for Margaret to hit theaters – but it was worth the wait. Let’s hope that all the crap that surrounded this masterpiece does not derail his filmmaking career. Few filmmakers would attempt a film as complex as Margaret – even fewer would pull it off so brilliantly.
Note: This review was of the the theatrical version - which was the only one available to me when it was released on Tuesday. There is a Blu-Ray edition that includes both this version, and the "extended version", which is over three hours long, or about a half hour longer than the theatrical version. It is my understanding however that this version is available "exclusively" through Amazon for the time being. When it becomes more widely available, I will be definitely be checking it out.