Monday, February 6, 2012


With all the troubles and bad press that comes with Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, it's a bit difficult to see the movie outside of all of that.  Filmed in 2005, Lonergan's second feature as writer\director-- following his 2000 acclaimed art house film You Can Count on Me-- the film was only given a teeny toddler of an actual release in September of last year.  What with all the lawsuits and bridges burned within the post-production hell, it certainly felt that distributor Fox Searchlight saw nothing else to do than to bury this troubled movie.  Whatever disputes and trials it took for it come around, the most unsettling thing about Margaret is that it's too much a thing a value to easily shake.  While the version I saw was not Lonergan's vision-- most of the legal action had to due with the monster editing job that a bevy of the world's most accomplished cutters took part in for the film to reach it's contractually obligated two-hours and thirty-minute run time-- and thus perhaps, still unfinished, Margaret is such a messy, ambitious, volatile film of scope.  Martin Scorsese is claimed to have called an earlier, much longer cut, a "masterpiece" some years back, and while the great auteur may have more patience than myself, there's so much texture and longing in the "final" product for the film to be totally overtaken by it's negative public relations.

Margaret is also a bit of a relic-- but in the sort of rediscovery sense-- not just because leading actress Anna Paquin is playing a high school student, or that co-star Matt Damon looks ten years younger, or that the film features Olivia Thirlby before she became Juno's BFF, or Rosemarie DeWitt before she was Rachel Getting Married in small parts.  Margaret was written and filmed in a specific post-9\11 New York City mindset, a mood that carries the movie in it's anger, sensitivity and its sense of ambivalence and adjusted morality.  And how a smaller more personal tragedy (at the root of its story) equates with a larger more global one.  Not to say the film isn't overstuffed, or pretentious (it fits both a whole lot-- this is a sprawling ensemble drama where Upper West Side teenagers speak like middle aged intellectuals and its title is taken from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem briefly mentioned), but its messiness and rough around the edges exterior actually compliment the messiness of its complicated characters.  Lonergan's gift for novelistic characterizations (which was so potent in You Can Count on Me) is given greater depth and bigger scope with Margaret, that the parts that sting do so with such power.  It's a shame, or at least interesting, that so much of the film is shapeless and unformed.  That is aside from it's leading character.

Paquin plays Lisa, a 17-year-old Manhattanite of certain privilege.  Smart, and pretty if a bit too tightly wound and overly hysterical.  At the beginning, there's banal exchanges-- her debating her geometry teacher (Damon) over a test grade, a nervous boy trying to ask her out, a quest for a cowboy hat-- before the tone shifts.  Lisa lays witness (and may be partially responsible for) a bus accident that kills a pedestrian.  Shot with anguish and naked emotion and Paquin's blood soaked clothing as she comes to victim's aid, it's clear within that early sequence, that Lisa's overly pampered adolescence is pretty much over.  Not that she see's it like that immediately.  Paquin is so adept at channeling such girlish hormonal histrionics and tuning with on in different ways with different characters, that at times her performance feels like a carnival act.  But her sense of guilt and moral dilemma of culpability are just as vividly expressed when she's capital A acting versus when she's given moments of silence.  It's such a complicated characterization that one would be hard pressed to simply write her off as unlikable or good or bad-- she's human.  At times irritating, selfish, stubborn, but also empathetic and aware of her own brattiness.  One of the films best and worst qualities is in the very human way, especially after something traumatic, that life goes on.  Margaret goes on...and on, in finding that striking imbalance of dealing with something deep and the (un)healthy human reaction to continue as if everything is alright.

Lisa's complications arise when hit with tremendous bursts of guilt-- her statement wasn't entirely accurate-- she did so in a way to help the bus driver (played by Mark Ruffalo), who must have a family to support, and to overcome her own responsibility.  She's also got a heavily dysfunctional relationship with her family-- her mother Joan (played by J. Smith Cameron) has bouts of hysterical mood shifts herself, which compliment her as a successful stage actress; her father is in Los Angeles in is played by Lonergan himself in a series of increasingly flippant phone conversations.  Rounding out the intensity are the bickering post-9\11 debates at school, where Lisa's classrooms might as well be war rooms.  The tapestry of the nuanced textures of the Lisa's life are massive, even if the locations themselves are commonplace.  The words are strong and the mood is all over the map-- there's even a snap shot of romantic comedy as Joan is pursued by Jean Reno, in the films wonkiest stretches-- but is somehow kept together because Lonergan never loses focus with Lisa, and Paquin's performance, prickly as it is, is what Margaret is rested upon.  In Lisa's over-compensated attempts at making amends, she befriends the victim's sole friend, another prickly New York broad, played with brio by Jeannie Berlin, and the films final sections set about the wrong and right ways this accident such be held accounted for.  It's striking (not to give anything away) that Margaret becomes a cynical near satire of sorts of naked human suffering.

What's left with this problematic film?  Well, it's still a problem, and quasi-operatic undertones jell unevenly with the somber personal themes, but there's a wealth of wonderful acting and writing and that ambition thing comes back.  Lonergan has so many conflicting ideas and so much at stake in Margaret, it could fill four films I'm sure.  But even in it's unrefined state, there's an almost lovely glow even in it's soggiest, a flicker of hope and artfulness that wasn't yet established eleven years ago when he made his first feature.  It's in the candid moments and sequences of New Yorkers unaware of what their fair city will become, full of fear, but also warmth.  And while it may be but a relic some six years after the movie was shot, there's also a bit of timelessness to it as well, as while those days (for better or worse) may be gone, the memories of them are still so engrained in our soul.

Perhaps the best thing to come from it's barely-there invisible release last September, was a movement started on Twitter, #TeamMargaret, formed in an effort to get the film back in cinemas, and to continue and further the conversation.  I can think of fewer films in the last year that have the ability to generate such an immediate after-thought-- whether it is loved or hated, or both, it would be hard not to be affected on some level.  While the campaign itself may have been just as quiet as the film's release was, it did come back to a few screens, and while I myself may not quite by on Team Margaret, I stand beside it, for this movement, I believe, is not just for a chance for audiences to get to see Lonergan's film, but also a case for inexpensive, American dramas about grown ups, for grown ups to once again have it's place in the cinema all too crowded with unnecessary and banal sequels and wannabe franchise whats-its.  Whether affected or not, Fox Searchlight did send out screeners of Margaret to Academy members in late December; the film received no Oscar nominations, but I would argue-- even for those whose generosity for the film doesn't go beyond interesting failure-- that Margaret is leaps and bounds better than most of nine nominated Best Pictures.  B+

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