Some admirers of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” are calling the film a masterpiece.
I won’t go that far. I like to give movies a decade or so before laying down that sort of pronouncement.
But “Margaret” is certainly a very good movie. It may very well be the best movie you have never heard of.
“Margaret” probably never played in your city. It barely played outside New York despite its astounding cast (Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Alison Janney, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo) and awesome credentials (it was written and directed by playwright Lonergan, whose 2000 film “You Can Count on Me” is quite possible the Best Independent Movie Ever).
Filmed in 2006, “Margaret” went through a torturous post-production period. Lonergan reportedly had a hellish time editing the film and Fox Searchlight demanded a savage trim of the three-hour cut he submitted to them. There was litigation and much angst.
Late last year “Margaret” opened in one New York theater to glowing reviews and … and … well, that’s about it. The movie has now come out on home video and is available on pay-per-view through many cable providers.
Basically, it’s the story of how one teenage girl learns she’s not the center of the universe.
See it. It’s a challenging, thoughtful and moving work.
Lisa Cohen (Paquin) lives with her actress mother and little brother in what appears to be an Upper West Side apartment. Nothing too fancy … Lisa’s family isn’t rich and she attends a tony private high school only because of a scholarship which requires that she keep her grades up.
Lisa is cute, smart, opinionated and entitled. She views the world through a lens of hip disdain — no situation can be too horrendous for her to make a mocking, snide (but admittedly clever) observation about it. She’s frequently at odds with her mother, whose life of rehearsals, performances, auditions and artistic soul searching Lisa views with contempt.
And then something happens that changes Lisa’s world. One day on the street her behavior distracts a bus driver (Ruffalo) who runs a red light and plows into a woman crossing the street. The victim (Janney in one of the most grueling five minutes of film you’ll ever watch) dies in Lisa’s arms.
Lisa, feeling guilty about her role in the accident, lies to the cops, telling them the bus driver had a green light.
But as time passes the guilt doesn’t go away. Lisa tries to amend her story to the police. They really don’t want to redo all that paperwork.
Attending a memorial, she befriends the dead woman’s best friend, Emily (Jennie Berlin), a classic New Yorker fueled by full-steam-ahead assertiveness and a thin skin. Together they instigate a lawsuit against the transit company.
Lisa has come full circle. She wants to see the driver shamed, fired and punished. Apparently her compartmentalized mind now allows her to ignore her own not-inconsiderable role in the tragedy and pin all the blame on the driver.
This is the film’s central narrative thread. But Lonergan is casting a much wider net. “Margaret” (I’ll explain the title in a bit) is a kaleidoscopic look at life in the big city, filled with subplots and digressions that give the movie a lived-in feel.
Lisa’s mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron … wife of the writer/director), is anxiously rehearsing a Broadway show that might propel her into stardom. She’s also dealing somewhat uncomfortably with the affections of a wealthy foreign businessman (French actor Jean Reno) who has seen her on the stage and adored her from afar.
The New Yorkers who gather to share their memories of the dead woman — not to mention those who surrounded her on the street to give assistance — are presented not as walk-ons but as flesh-and-blood individuals.
Lisa juggles one earnest young fellow who’d love to be her boyfriend and a second, much more hiply self-aware classmate (Kieran Culkin) to whom she gives up her virginity in a businesslike transaction. More problematical is her toying with her math teacher (Damon), who wants to assuage his student’s obvious emotional distress but finds himself succumbing to her sexual come-ons.
Lisa’s classmates are a well-heeled bunch who engage in withering attacks on one another under the guise of discussing 9-11 (one of the students is Muslim, most of them are Jewish).
And another educator (Broderick) becomes an object of Lisa’s barely-disguised ridicule. He’s an English teacher who takes poetry seriously — you can imagine the sort of disrespect he gets from horny teens. But it’s his classroom reading of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem (“ … Margaret, are you grieving … ”) that gives the film its title and a clue to its intentions.
From this description one might conclude that Lisa is a reprehensible person. The wonder of “Margaret” is that in Paquin’s hands she doesn’t come off that way. Rather, she’s a fairly typical teen, largely selfish and self-centered, who because of an extraordinary moment is forced to grow.
The film is quite beautiful, with some wonderfully atmospheric cinematography that takes in the big city’s soaring beauty. If I have a major complaint it’s that Lonergan is too somber here. “You Can Count on Me” knew how to find meaning in laughter. Not much to laugh at here.
The DVD and pay-per-view versions of “Margaret” have a running time of 2 and a half hours. But the Blu-ray also includes a different 3-hour version preferred by Lonergan. I look forward to watching that one, too.