Review: Margaret by Writer-Director Kenneth Lonergan

Yesterday I was fortunate to receive an envelope with a Blu-ray inside: MARGARET,  the long awaited follow up to two-time Academy Award nominee Kenneth Lonergan’s critically acclaimed debut feature You Can Count on Me, a movie that resonated with me on so many levels. It was the never-before-seen extended cut.  Fortunately, I’m a bit of a movie buff and I immediately understood the fortitude of this gift.  As soon as my kids went to bed, I popped into the DVD player and let the movie begin so I could find out what all the hype of this film is.  I had picked up on the social media buzz generated for this film via #teammargaret on Twitter and my curiosity was peaked.

How did I feel about it?  I was mesmerized.  The film is dramatic and powerful and smart and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s also smart and full of incredibly good actors.   But let me give you a bit of background about the film.

Believe it or not, MARGARET was shot in 2005.  Lonergan apparently spent a long time trying to get the film perfected.  He spent years battling with Fox Searchlight over its running time which he originally ran at 188 minutes.  Last year, a cut seconds shy of 150 minutes was released in just two theaters.  Critics, including Roger Ebert, loved the film but it never went beyond those two screens.

The title is derived from the poem “Spring and Fall: To a young child” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  The poem is about grief  – here’s a snippet:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder

The title character is actually not called Margaret, she is Lisa, a teenager living with her mother and younger brother in Manhattan post-9/11.  Anna Paquin plays Lisa, J. Smith-Cameron plays her mother (what a completely powerful performance by one of my favorite stage actresses).  One day, while out on her own, Lisa innocently gets mixed up in a serious bus accident which kills a pedestrian, played by Allison Janney.  Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick play teachers, Mark Ruffalo is the bus driver.  While Lisa is trying to figure out how to make right, her world spirals out of control.  Her mother is an actress who can’t connect with her own daughter or talk to to her about the incident.  Lisa uses her sexuality to use boys and men to get through her state of confusion.  Her dad, played by Kenneth Longergan, lives in Los Angeles and is also disconnected and uninterested in what’s going through her mind.

From the moment the film starts, with people slowly crossing the street in Manhattan and the camera really zeroing in on them, I could tell the film was going to have a interesting relationship with the city of NYC.  Lonergan uses his camera to really capture the  city post 9-11 and the fear that is instigated as a result.  I still can’t get the bus scene out of my mind.  It was horrific and I can’t imagine the effort put into making the scene as real as it looked.

I’ve watched Anna Paquin for years and I loved her in The Piano.  Now she’s known for True Blood and seems settled in TV land, but boy, can she act.  Full of guilt, her character is on a quest to get comfort where she can.  Right after the accident, she lies about the fact that the bus driver went through a red light, which she did see happen, and she spends the whole movie coming to terms with her lie and helping the dead woman’s best friend see justice.  But it’s really because she feels guilty and knows deep down that she contributed to the woman’s death.  There are a lot of characters in the film and they don’t always connect to each other, but they connect in their relationship to Lisa, whether positive or negative, and their lack of connection makes sense for the film. It’s really Lisa’s vision of the world, which is warped and deluded after witnessing a death and blaming herself.  The only flaw I found with Paquin is that knowing that she’s really a New Zealander, I felt like I heard her accent slip several times through the film.  Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon also provide real departures in this film.  Ruffalo plays a scummy bus driver who knows he made a mistake but doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life paying for it and Damon plays a teacher who succumbs to Lisa’s sexual desires.  J. Smith Cameron, a stage actress I’ve seen many times in NYC, plays the narcissistic mom well.  She dates a European businessman who she clearly doesn’t connect to and struggles in her world when she’s not acting on stage.

There are a lot of really interesting conversations going on in this film,  most of them occurring in Lisa’s high school.  But there are also conversations that go unfinished, this film is not perfect (hence the delay in getting in out there, I guess).  There’s the topic of an abortion that I wasn’t clear really happened or not, and there are heated classroom discussions that aren’t given closure. For example, in Lisa’s history class, she gets upset and yells at a Syrian girl who’s simply expressing her opinion about 9/11 and Arabs.  But they add to the frenetic pace, to the anxious feeling of the post 9-11 NYC climate.

Longergan had a story to tell and he told it well, in my opinion.  I’m really glad the film was released in 2012 so that he can have peace of mind that people will see what he called his “master piece”.  It shouldn’t have taken so long .

MARGARET is available on blu-ray on Amazon for $27.99.

Disclosure: I was not compensated to write this review.  The DVD was provided to facilitate my opinion but all opinions are my own.





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