Film Review – Margaret

Margaret (MA)

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

Starring: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Jeannie Berlin, Jean Reno

Four and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Films that have a rough road to the screen are usually ones that the makers try to sweep under the carpet. Once reports get out of extended production time, editing woes, legal battles and a final product being confined to the shelf for years, it is not exactly positive PR. Instead of fighting the cynicism of potential audiences, those behind the project usually want to just move on to the next, hopefully less cursed, project.

Margaret could have been another in the list of troubled productions that fell into oblivion amongst scandalous stories of director vs studio battles and disagreements. The little movie that could was filmed in 2006 but mistreated and almost left to languish in development hell by the studio once writer/director Kenneth Lonergan failed to present was he was contractually obliged to. After a few editing passes later (one by Hollywood heavyweight Martin Scorsese) to get the running time down and once legal disputes died down, it has suffered a meagre cinematic run.

Sound familiar? Except, Margaret is possibly the only exception in which the passion behind the film, the script’s core themes, the careful direction and measured performances manage to shine despite the butcher knife-like editing. So let’s not let the archaic behind the scenes stories overshadow what is finally up on our screens. What has been delivered is a stunning and nuanced portrayal of a New York teenager whose life and relationships take a hard knock after she is witness to an accidental death.

When 17-year-old Lisa (Anna Paquin) spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing a cowboy hat she admires, she tries to get his attention which leads to a momentary lapse in the man’s concentration and he hits pedestrian Monica (Allison Janney). With the woman bleeding to death in the street, Lisa and some on-lookers try to help but cannot prevent the inevitable in the devastatingly, hauntingly realistic sequence. Lisa tells the police it was all an accident, but later must deal with the emotional conflict this causes within her.

Desperate attempts to connect with her stage actress mum (J. Smith-Cameron), interstate dad and teachers (Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon) for comfort and advice, she is not satisfied and makes calculated decisions to dabble in drugs and give up her virginity hastily to distract herself from the pangs of guilt. Unsatisfied by this course of action, she makes contact with the dead woman’s family. A rejection by Monica’s long-lost cousin (the only living relative it would seem) leads Lisa to her best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin). The two come up with the idea of getting the bus driver fired despite the problematic legal situation of the accident. But is Lisa treating this whole situation like some sort of dramatic opera? Is she seeking legal action for true justice or just to alleviate her own guilt? Why should the bus driver, who has a family to support, be punished but not her?

The answers might not always be clear when it comes to the complicated Lisa, but the heartfelt and nuanced journey to try to put the pieces together is one that must be taken. Lisa is written and portrayed as a typical teenager on the surface. Rebellious, cheeky, defensive, immature, mouthy. She is frustrating and fascinating at the same time. Paquin gives a layered performance of a difficult and complex character, one that comes across as pleasant enough but is at times fiercely unlikeable and whose motivations questionable.

But one of the strengths of the script is that not all the focus is on her – other characters are given meaty moments that allow the cast to dig a little deeper. Sub plots have clearly been cut right back, but even with what we have here is a rich experience. The editing is choppy and the script hammers the point across in more than one shoutty conversation, but these minor quibbles do not detract from the fact that there is nary a moment that does not ring true in all of the interactions, relationships and situations.

Lonergran intended for his story to be at least half an hour longer, but despite apparent post production hacking, this still feels like the version we are meant to see. Now that is talent. While this version is as near to perfection as you could get, Lonergran’s director’s cut will certainly one to look out for.

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