4 / 5 stars
After dramatist Kenneth Lonergan made his directorial debut with the Oscar-nominated You Can Count On Me in 2000, the art-house world – especially fans of Lonergan’s chewy, unpredictable dialogue – was looking forward to what would come next. No one thought the wait would take more than a decade. (Click on the cover for a closer look.)
Thanks to a legal storm between Lonergan and Fox Searchlight over an accepted running time, the New York City tragedy Margaret sat without an audience for roughly five years. Finally, an “acceptable” version of the film received a minuscule release in late 2011 (including just one screen in the UK) and a 2012 Blu-ray / DVD that realized Lonergan’s initial desire: Getting his own three-hour edit to viewers, which is the version reviewed here. Three hours is awfully ambitious for a talky drama, but necessary for achieving the character depth Lonergan shoots for.
If that level of character insight feels strange, it should: It barely exists in American film. Filmmakers and writers often tackle character development with an efficient approach, crafting a scene or two to reveal enough about a character to hook viewers and drive narrative. Lonergan wants more, using ample screen time to flesh out the complex lives of his main roles, and carefully imply depth with his secondary characters. It’s rare and it’s rich.
Anna Paquin stars as Lisa, a precocious New York City teenager from a broken family, who plays a part in causing a freakish bus accident which results in a women’s death. Lisa’s maturation into adulthood was going to be tough enough emotionally, as it is for any older teen; this frightening opening-act incident only confuses her vision more, thrusting her into a world of self-imposed responsibility fast and dangerously.
In parallel, Lisa’s stage actress mom, Joan (veteran J. Smith-Cameron), has her own growth issues, managing personal and pre-show anxieties, raising two kids, and developing a new relationship with a gentleman fan (Jean Reno). Though I haven’t seen the theatrical version of Margaret, critics have said it’s missing the details that bring Joan to the fore, to share the lead with Lisa. It’s easy to see how that would hurt Margaret’s overall impact, especially in Lonergan’s cathartic conclusion.
As a filmmaker, Lonergan dismisses a lot of standard movie language, especially in his cutting approach with editor Anne McCabe. When our brains are conditioned to seeing close-ups, Lonergan holds tight on a wide shot. When we expect an edit within a contentious conversation, it doesn’t come, the shot sometimes leaving the speaker off-camera or with the back of their head to us. The result is a spontaneity that’s hard to pin down, keeping everything slightly and appropriately off-kilter.
Paquin gives her heart and soul to Lisa, transforming her real-life mid-20s self into a frazzled, over-confident teen trying to figure things out. Her fits of anger, defined by a speed-spewing of arguments to her mom or classmates, are youthful, loud and bratty… the perfect encapsulation of an urban, educated kid.
Lonergan pulls top performances from his entire cast — including Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon in small but vital roles — with a fantastic turn by Jeannie Berlin as the deceased’s best friend. The uncomfortable partnership that forms between Berlin’s Emily and young Lisa provides some of the most important and exciting moments of the film, with Berlin unexpectedly commanding the screen.
But throughout Margaret, Lonergan imagines his characters in a far bigger architecture than just their own. Through his lens, and with what feels like hundreds of little script touches, the characters in Margaret are just a few of eight million or so voices in all of New York. So, while Lisa breaks a boy’s heart as they sit talking in a diner booth, we can far more clearly hear the conversation next to them, two older women discussing a friend’s ugly dog. Maybe the ladies’ story is another movie, a comedy. Or maybe it’s a comedy that’s about to become a tragedy. It would seem Lonergan assumes one of two things: that everyone’s microcosm is equally and indefinably important, or that all of our stories blend into one relatively insignificant hum in the universe.