The world seen through the eyes of a teenager is an overly complex place, spoiled but adults who overly nuance everything while teens see it all with unjaded clarity. Such a worldview can be permanently altered by a single action and the resulting repercussions, which ripple in waves, touching many in unexpected ways. From that premise comes writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, a film whose making is as tortured as its premise.
Originally scheduled for release by Fox Searchlight in 2007, Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) labored over the production and then the editing until the release date came and went, prompting law suits. He finally delivered a cut totaling 3:06, far longer than the 2:30 the studio insisted upon, which became a part of the suit. Finally, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker stepped in to craft a cut that the director and studio could live with and the movie opened in December.
You missed it. You probably never heard of it or vaguely recall it was something Anna Paquin shot before True Blood made her a superstar. Before that series though, she was always an accomplished actress rarely given the right roles to demonstrate that but Lonergan wrote Lisa Cohen with Paquin in mind and she delivers a riveting performance worthy of your attention. Fortunately, the film is available as a Blu-ray Combo Pack on Tuesday and comes complete with both cuts of the film.
Twentieth Century Home Entertainment recently sent me a screener of the studio cut and it is extremely powerful and moving. Lisa is a 17 year old girl living with her divorced mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), an actress, and younger brother. Preparing to spend the summer at a ranch with Dad, she is seeking the proper cowboy hat when she spots one atop bus driver Jason “Maretti” Berstone (Mark Ruffalo). Chasing the bus in the hopes of boarding it and talking to him, he is distracted long enough to run a red light and strike a pedestrian (Alison Janney). Margaret comforts the woman whose life quickly ebbs away and with that the movie is launched.
Margaret gives a false statement, at Joan’s urging, to the police and the guilt weighs on her. She struggles with the memory of the event, the lie, the lack of justice in a cruel world and questions the meaning of life itself. As a result, she is adrift, thrashing out at friends and family alike. She is distanced from her mother, who is distracted first by the impending opening of her Broadway show and then an unlikely romance with a foreign businessman (Jean Reno). Lisa confides in her math teacher (Matt Damon) and ignores her English teacher (Matthew Broderick) and best friend (Olivia Thirlby). She does, though, make a conscious decision to lose her virginity to a stoner (Kieran Culkin) in what has to be one of the most honest lovemaking scenes in a long time.
Eventually, the weight of the lie and lack of proper closure eat at Lisa who connects with Emily (Jeannie Berlin), the victim’s closest friend, and together an odd bond is formed. Lisa confronts Jason, berates the police who have closed the case, and seeks legal remedies. She has made Jason losing his job, protecting potential victims, her mission and focuses solely on that with dramatic results.
As you can see, this has a hefty cast that underplay their parts. Emily is brittle and rude and not terribly warm to Lisa but they’re in this together, a relationship Joan has trouble accepting. No adult can say the right things or make the right moves to salve Lisa’s fevered conscience and Paquin runs with it. Lisa is appealing and sympathetic for the most part, but far from ideal and perfect.
The movie is heavy and dramatic but Lonergan brings a precision to the dialogue and storytelling, making it feel honest and real. He lets his characters argue, including some nice scenes in high school where the kids debate current events and Shakespeare with fervor. There’s one false note, a blunt statement Lisa makes to two of her teachers late in the film that feels out of left field with no follow up. Still, the movie is well worth your attention.
As for who Margaret is, she is a character in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child”.