REVIEW: Kenneth Lonergan's Flawed But Glorious Margaret Somehow Hits the Mark

Movieline Score: 8

There's always been a soft spot in my heart for grand, uncompromising, crazy-eyed acts of directorial ambition/folly -- films like Southland Tales and The Fountain, Heaven's Gate and One From The Heart -- that are either disaster or genius depending on who you talk to but that could never be described as restrained. Margaret, playwright Kenneth Lonergan's second turn as a director after 2000's very good You Can Count on Me, joins these titles after spending years in post-production purgatory as Lonergan reportedly struggled over a final cut, following lawsuits and studio battles and delays upon delays. (Among those listed in the opening credits are two people who've passed away since production began, executive producer Anthony Minghella and producer Sydney Pollack.)

That's a lot of baggage for what's fundamentally a two-and-a-half hour film about a Manhattan high school student adrift after witnessing a bus accident, but Margaret bears the weight, a messy, vexing, rewarding work of both great shrillness and great humanism. It's not a film that's easy to love, but like a song you at first can't stand but then end up humming all day, it works its way past your defenses and curls in close.

Margaret is the story of Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), who belongs squarely to two groups known for their capacity for noisy self-centeredness and unthinking entitlement -- New Yorkers and teenagers. How nuanced and dead-on a portrait of Lisa the film offers accounts in many ways for how initially exasperating it is. Pretty, smart and outspoken, Lisa's in full adolescent chaos, hormones raging, moods swinging, never letting how little she knows of the world stop her from making grand pronouncements about it. The volume is turned up on her turmoil by a gruesome incident early in the film -- chasing after a bus and trying to get the attention of the driver (Mark Ruffalo), Lisa distracts him enough that he runs the light, hitting a woman at the intersection, Monica (Allison Janney), who's headed home from the grocery store. Maimed and bleeding out, she dies in Lisa's arms as a crowd gathers, all the while asking about her daughter.

For everything that Margaret is about -- mortality, 9/11, the roles fate and chance play in our lives, justice and responsibility -- it is foremost a wonderful and complex look at the splendor and awfulness of being 17. The title refers to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Spring and Fall," a fragment of which ("Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?") is read in one of the classroom scenes that dapple the film, offering our heroine opportunities to battle a classmate (Hina Abdullah) over issues in the Middle East, to take in literature from her English teacher (Matthew Broderick) and start a mild flirtation with her math instructor (Matt Damon). Like the child in Hopkins' piece, Lisa is in the grip of distress she can't fully articulate, some of it brought on by feelings of guilt over Monica's death, some of it by the way the world fails to stop for the woman's passing, and some of it just by life not being exactly as she'd wish it. Lonergan, with the help of what turns out to be a very fine performance from Paquin after a shaky start, captures with exquisite clarity the rawness of emotions at that age, the vulnerability and self-righteousness, what it's like to be able to declare and absolutely believe that no one understands you.

Lisa begins digging into Monica's life, finding the deceased's best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) and working with her toward what, it's clear, is going to be an unsatisfying quest to hold someone responsible for the accident. Meanwhile, the film keeps spiraling out to larger shots of the city and pulling in the ragtag ends of surrounding stories. Lisa's divorced mother (J. Smith-Cameron), a slightly neurotic actress, has a new play going up and a new man in her life, the suave, international Ramon (Jean Reno). Lisa's father (Lonergan), who lives in California, is trying to organize, over the phone, some kind of horseback riding vacation with his children while his latest wife gives him a hard time. Lisa may, in the tradition of many a teenager, make everything about her, but Margaret is infused with a broad empathy for all of its characters that gives them an unusual roundness -- they're not just adornments on Lisa's journey, they're protagonists in their own only hinted-at stories, from the tears a classmate with a crush on Lisa sheds after she tells him she doesn't feel like talking, to the way the camera hovers behind Broderick's head as he walks away from finding two students getting high in the park, their mocking words ringing out after him.

Margaret is the opposite of effortless -- the pacing is haphazard and, though it didn't feel overlong to me, the film does come down to an epic character study, the narrative developments all secondary and unresolved. Lonergan's gifts as a filmmaker are in writing and in working with actors, and not so much in the way scenes are staged and shot. Though the film is well-performed, its repeated use of scenes in which characters talk over each other in circular arguments, getting louder and more defensive, are like nails on a chalkboard (one in which Lisa calls someone "strident," and then tries to backtrack while refusing to apologize, is a stand-out). But Margaret's clutter and the room it insists on taking for its aspirations are glorious things, and while it overreaches, it hits its mark more. It feels like a film that's been years in the making, and something this rich is worth the wait.