You can count on Lonergan
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Apr. 27, 2012
"Margaret" arrives at the West End Cinema already draped in Hollywood myth. The sophomore effort of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, whose 2000 brother-sister drama "You Can Count on Me" was one of the best films of that decade, "Margaret" was filmed in 2005 but mysteriously never appeared on screens, as talk of editing troubles, balky distributors and lawsuits eddied and swirled.
Now that "Margaret" has finally surfaced, it lives up to the legend that precedes it. Ambitious, affecting, unwieldy and haunting, it's an eccentric, densely atmospheric, morally hyper-aware masterpiece that refuses to follow the strictures of conventional cinematic structure, instead leading the audience on a circuitous journey down the myriad rabbit holes that comprise modern-day Manhattan.
Anchored by a spikily bravura performance by Anna Paquin, "Margaret" admittedly bears some earmarks of troubled post-production - it sags and bags and zigs and zags with blithe willfulness. But that's utterly in keeping with Paquin's 17-year-old protagonist, whose unflagging if unfocused sense of purpose propels "Margaret" with irresistible, headstrong zeal.
Paquin plays Lisa, a smart, heedlessly coltish student at a tony private high school on the Upper West Side, whose life is upended one day when she witnesses a horrific accident that she thinks she might have caused (an accident staged by Lonergan in excruciatingly graphic detail).
Arriving home literally with blood on her hands, Lisa tries to make sense of what happened and her role in it, polling the adults in her life on how best to proceed. She confides in her mother, Joan (the delicately forceful J. Smith-Cameron), an actress whose new play is receiving rave notices and who's embarking on her own perilous interior journey involving a South American suitor (Jean Reno). She talks with her geometry teacher (Matt Damon), a handsome, transplanted Midwesterner with an idealistic streak. She pulls away from her friends but strikes up a relationship with a teenage boy who's clearly trouble (Kieran Culkin).
Eventually she meets a woman named Emily (Jeannie Berlin), with whom she becomes schooled in the minutiae of wrongful-death suits.
Powered as it is by questions of right and wrong, Lisa's journey - from apartment to classroom to police station to lawyer's office - takes on the contours of an ethical thriller, made all the more high-stakes by her persistent sense of guilt and raw grief. In one of her classes at school she gets into a loud, angry argument with a fellow student about Middle East politics and 9/11 - and echoes of that event permeate "Margaret," which is shot through with a palpable sense of unresolved trauma.
Indeed, it's interesting that one of Lonergan's producers is Scott Rudin, who was also behind the far less convincing post-9/11 melodrama "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." In many ways, "Margaret" feels like the movie "Extremely Loud" fell so short of being: a poetic meditation on loss, a far-ranging urban picaresque and a parable of healing and connection by way of a naive youngster's innocent but bull-headed search for closure.
Even that highfalutin description doesn't do "Margaret" justice, because it's more than that. For one thing, it's a sensitive, wryly funny evocation of the fraught relationships between mothers and teenage daughters. For another, it's a splendid, almost decadently indulgent showcase of some of cinema's finest acting talent, including Smith-Cameron (check out her face when one of her dates describes his job in computer software) and the sublime Berlin, best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1972 comedy "The Heartbreak Kid." If "Margaret" deserves praise for anything, it's for reintroducing audiences to Berlin, who gives full, abrasive voice to a New York woman we rarely see represented in movies: the weathered, cranky survivor of a certain age who ekes out a living without the benefit of great shoes or quirky lovability.
Among the delectable digressions in "Margaret" - which takes its title from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Spring and Fall" - are an impassioned argument between an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) and a student over "King Lear," a brutally honest scene of a girl losing her virginity and not one but two transcendent Metropolitan Opera performances: Christine Goerke in "Norma" and Renee Fleming and Susan Graham in "Tales of Hoffman."
Throw in more than a few legal sidebars, several conversations between Lisa and her dad in California about an upcoming trip and an impulsive mission to Brooklyn, and "Margaret" often veers dangerously close to losing its way.
But as long as Lonergan stays focused on his feisty, sensitive, self-dramatizing young heroine, the movie is always where it needs to be. There's a scene late in the movie, when Lisa is walking down a New York street and disappears into the crowd, that could have served as a perfectly suitable ending for her story. But that moment would have been too pat for a writer of Lonergan's rigor.
Life goes on even when some lives end, "Margaret" invites us to muse, and isn't that strange?
Contains strong profanity, sexuality, some drug use and disturbing images.