Shot back in 2005, “Margaret” has been sitting on the shelf, until finally seeing the light of day six years later and being released into theaters last fall. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s sophomore follow-up to his winning 2000 indie “You Can Count On Me” was deemed unable to be released from a lengthy editing process that led to lawsuits; the one Martin Scorsese and his ace go-to editor Thelma Schoonmaker even made edits for the theatrical release. Now, brushing off the mothballs and ignoring all the behind-the-scenes reports, Lonergan’s “Margaret” is a sprawling, often very interesting, ultimately unwieldy piece of work that might already be excessively epic in overlength but sparks one’s curiosity in seeing the unreleased three-hour cut.
Privileged 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) attends a private school and lives in New York’s Upper West Side with her younger brother and their divorced stage-actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron). The day Lisa goes to buy a cowboy hat for her horse-riding trip with her father (director Lonergan, seen during phone conversations), she notices a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) with the hat she wanted and gets his attention as he drives away, but distracts and causes him to run a red light and hit a bystander (Allison Janney). Lisa is a witness, and runs to the side of the bloodied woman, gripping her arms before the last moments of the unknown woman’s life. Agreeing with the driver, Lisa tells the police that it was just an accident (and that he did not run the light), but in wanting to change her story, she feels partly responsible for the accident and cannot get it off her mind, until she finds clarity. Will the secret ever rear its ugly head and will either surviving parties face the ramifications?
The title of the film might’ve been “Lisa,” but Lonergan’s script refers to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall” (involving a young girl named Margaret who experiences an emotional crisis) that is read in Lisa’s English class. Meandering and loosely structured, “Margaret” is not a “Crash”-style mosaic, but it might as well be, as it goes off in so many directions. Just to name a few of the subplots, Lisa’s mother starts dating a Colombian, opera-adoring boyfriend Ramon (Jean Reno); Lisa strings along a nice classmate (John Gallagher Jr.) but asks a bad boy (Kieran Culkin), who already has a girlfriend, to take her virginity; and Lisa tracks down the victim’s good friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) and they both fight for justice. But, at its core is a film about a teenaged girl faced with day-to-day challenges at home and in and out of school, before and after the guilt that absorbs her from such a tragic accident. The film also seems to wears its timeless importance on its sleeve, existing in a post-9/11 world. For example, in Lisa’s history class, she and her fellow classmates gang up on (or in some cases, defend) a Syrian girl who’s simply expressing her opinion about 9/11 and Arabs. Just as it seems to be losing its away in so much narrative traffic, Lonergan never loses track of Lisa as a character, so not everything feels arbitrary.
Paquin (even before HBO’s “True Blood”) plays Lisa with a fearless honesty and credible precocity; she never tries to push likability, carrying on screechy arguments with characters, but doesn’t lose sympathy either. Like any teen, she’s self-involved, and after the accident, it’s all about her. Lisa calls another character “strident” followed by apologizing that she misused the word, when she, in fact, is the one being strident. Still, it’s because of Paquin and a superb J. Smith-Cameron (Lonergan’s real-life wife) that the film rarely loses its intimacy. They have more than one shouting match, all ringingly achingly true and then countered by an emotionally vital conclusion for Lisa, Joan, and the audience. The accident itself and the brutal aftermatch is one of the most harrowing to be captured on film in recent memories, sold by Paquin’s open emotion and Allison Janney’s wrenchingly real brief, final moments. As the bus-accident victim’s best friend Emily, Berlin is a spunky, understated vet, deftly switching from playing Lisa’s surrogate mother to putting the brat in her place. Ruffalo makes a lasting impression as the bus driver Maretti, who takes his version of the accident to his grave, and Rosemarie DeWitt just barely makes an impression as his wife. Matthew Broderick has even less to work with as Lisa’s English teacher who rejects a student for thinking he knows the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays more than he does.
Once one realizes how vividly Lonergan hones in on human nature, his film relies on the viewer to spend their time in the lives of flawed, often aggravating characters. Alas, problems in the editing room show through, with some scenes ending abruptly, a few shots sloppily cut to match the same shot, and a go-nowhere subplot involving Lisa’s math teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon) that just seems like leftovers. Even after the introduction of an abortion, the plot thread is immediately aborted. Even for its troubled production and being rough around the edges, “Margaret” is worthwhile for Lonergan’s ambitious scope and handling of his actors.
150 min., rated R.
Grade: B –