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BLU-RAY REVIEW: Margaret




Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is both a film you’ll want to kiss and a film you’ll want to kill. Ditto its lead character, Lisa Cohen, an upper-middle-class New York teen played so expertly by Anna Paquin. If she seems a bit riper than on HBO’s True Blood, it’s for a good reason; Lonergan filmed Margaret way back in 2005, only to see the film bogged down in a series of editing disputes and legal battles.

In 2011, Fox Searchlight bravely picked the film up for distribution, only to cowardly dump the 150-minute theatrical cut into a handful of theaters for a token one-week release. Margaret, a searing drama starring Paquin, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, and others, grossed a paltry $46,500.

Then came the #TeamMargaret movement of December 2011 and January 2012 that brought the film back into the public’s stream of consciousness and forced Searchlight’s hand. There was a demand for Margaret, so the studio supplied it—in the form of a two-disc package, featuring the theatrical cut on Blu-Ray and Lonergan’s three-hour extended cut on DVD.

Full disclosure: At the time of publishing this, I have yet to watch the theatrical version. That said, it won’t be long before I remedy that because Margaret (the extended cut, at least) is a titanic film. Touching on issues both uncomfortably personal and startlingly universal, Lonergan has crafted something as sprawling as New York City itself. And yes, not all of it works, but there’s more food for thought here than in any movie since The Tree of Life.

You’re probably wondering who Margaret is, if not Paquin. She’s the subject of a poem (read halfway through the film) by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her surrogate is Paquin’s Lisa, who’s inadvertently guilty of causing a fatal bus accident outside her mother’s Upper West Side apartment. Monica (Allison Janney) is the victim, and Lisa holds her hand for a few minutes until she expires. Ruffalo’s Maretti is the stunned driver.

Over the course of the film, Lisa will lie to the police (stating Monica walked against the light), fight with her actress mother (a terrific J. Smith-Cameron), bond with the deceased’s best friend (an even better Jeannie Berlin), confront Maretti, change her statement, and have sex somewhere between two and 100 times. Meanwhile, her mother will achieve great on-stage success and date a suave South American businessman (Jean Reno); Her classmates will viciously bicker over 9/11 and conflict in the Middle East; And her geometry teacher (Damon) will try to suppress some very inappropriate feelings.

It’s a lot, even for a three hour movie, and what’s above is only a spoiler-free sense of the action to whet your whistle. But at its heart, Margaret is a simple character study of a whip-smart, but lonely, damaged, and suddenly traumatized high-schooler. Lisa dramatically confronts those who challenge her not because she’s a bitch, but because she cares too deeply. Lonergan offers a number of possible explanations why this is (her family, a sheltered upbringing, the unexplainable randomness that was this horrible accident), but by the time the film reaches its devastating conclusion, it seems she’s finally learned something valuable.

Margaret does a number of other things brilliantly, beyond just the study of Lisa. Its tapestry of characters is sewn together in a way that’s both unique and, frankly, unwieldy, but it serves Lisa’s story perfectly. The 9/11 allegories are delicate and on-point. And the New York Lonergan is depicting takes on a life of it’s own through sumptuous city cinematography and an appropriately morose score.

Where Margaret cuts deepest, however, is in its myriad of sensational performances. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise for anyone familiar with Lonergan’s last film (and directorial debut), 2000’s You Can Count on Me. Paquin is this vulnerable force of nature whose Lisa seems to be just barely skating by with the status quo. Throw a disruption into her routine (especially one as painful as the accident), and she becomes an unpredictable mess.

J. Smith-Cameron is her equal in every way as Joan, Lisa’s mother—a seemingly genteel woman who, just as things seem to be looking up in her life, slowly begins to lose her grip on what’s most important. In a certain respect, she’s nothing more than a grown-up version of her daughter. When the waters are still, so is she. But disrupt that stillness, even with something good or insignificant, and she becomes a ticking time bomb.

The bigger names in the cast—Damon, Ruffalo, Janney—are all adequate, but they’re simply here to service the story of Lisa and Joan. The one supporting actress that truly shines is one totally unfamiliar to me before watching this film—Jeannie Berlin. With only two small IMDb credits to her name since 1977(!), she’s an absolute revelation. Her Emily is nothing more than a suffering bystander in Lisa’s grand drama, but the young girl interjects herself into Emily’s life in such a way that she becomes a surrogate mother of sorts. This leads to some really complicated discussions and arguments, as well as some nasty name-calling, about Lisa’s selfishness and naivete. It’s actually sad seeing the two of them tear each other apart because they seem to be good for each other at times, but their fights (during which Berlin doesn’t flinch) are instrumental in Lisa’s growth.

I’m still contemplating so much about this mammoth film, and I just want to give the Blu-Ray cover a hug. In fact, I’d like to hug Lonergan and all those involved for risking so much to create something that’s profoundly human. There’s a great deal about Margaret that I haven’t yet wrapped my head around, but that’s all the more reason to applaud what these filmmakers have accomplished. Margaret might have taken seven years to get to this point, but from where I sit, it was well worth it.

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