Margaret (2011) / US / Out on DVD now / Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan / Starring Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo, Jeannie Berlin, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Kieran Culkin, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick / 178 mins
Some movies are just damn unlucky. Margaret happens to be one of those. By now, you should all know the story - the film was made around seven years ago, but was stuck in production because the producers wouldn't allow Kenneth Lonergan's passion project exceed 150 minutes. Lonergan insisted that it couldn't be that short, which eventuated in a couple of lawsuits, along with the film being shelved. Martin Scorsese and his trusty editor Thelma Schoonmaker came along and cut the film down to 150 minutes, which Lonergan approved of, and the film was on its way to a limited release in the US at the end of last year. Screeners were sent out to the Academy voters, but to no avail - Margaret passed without too much attention, trickled its way into international distributor's laps, and wound up on DVD, complete with the three hour extended cut. Which is what I watched, so in a way, I was kinda seeing Kenneth Lonergan's passion project just as he intended for it to be. But even then, it felt like this wasn't the masterpiece he wanted it to be - whether that be because his ideas were never fully realised, or three hours just wasn't enough to say everything that he wanted to say.
Should we be nice to Margaret because it has been on the shelf for so long? Should we take pity on Longergan's efforts? No way. Margaret has far too many flaws to count, but it is still a fantastic film. The plot doesn't exactly scream three hours of footage, either. It follows the life of Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a 17 year old who witnesses a bus accident which kills a woman (Allison Janney) - and she believes she was part of the cause of it, as she thinks she was distracting the driver of the bus (Mark Ruffalo). This strain of plot doesn't exactly stretch itself over the three hours. Instead, it manifests itself into the dramas of Lisa's life, as she tries to grow up and learn from the experience, which is sometimes just a little too much for her 17 year old head to carry. Which is when the film becomes a coming-of-age drama, and to be honest, as a person who is the same age as the protagonist, this film was just about perfect.
The film is an absolute mess, but that somehow works to its advantage. That is probably because the film explores the tropes of being a teenager, and being a teenager is always an absolute mess. Lisa is an interesting character, who is impulsive, confused, headstrong...and yeah, sometimes impossibly annoying. But there's some interesting beauty within her. This comes from the fact that she doesn't move on from the accident that most people would have walked away from, creating an existential crisis that barely anyone could understand, but I could. Everything that happens to her rang surprisingly true in the strangest of ways. Her coming-of-age story wasn't sugar coated with those "teenage dream" days that Katy Perry believes in. Her life isn't particularly bad, but this movie kinda summed up my life, in all its twisted, angsty glory. Then again, I'm a little more lenient to looking on the bright side of life than Lisa is.
Lisa is a difficult character, prone to random (wordy) outbursts at everyone in anyone, and is far from the most consistent person on Earth. It takes a special talent to bring life to someone who is so confused in hers, and Anna Paquin is more than capable of that. It was kinda strange seeing her playing someone so young when I'm used to seeing her as Sookie Stackhouse on True Blood, but all those years ago, she gave us a wonderful performance - which is one of the best I've ever seen. She's part of the reason why this doesn't delve into Katy Perry territory in all its airbrushed nature. Paquin makes Lisa a completely normal teenager, which is what many early 20 year old actors seem to forget how to do. They'd rather exaggerate everything, but Paquin keeps it all tightly wound and down to Earth. It is a shame that this film wasn't more noticed around Oscar time, because Paquin's performance was better than Meryl Streep's
Backing Anna Paquin's tour de force is a round-table of actors that act that crap out of their characters, even if they get wavering amounts of screen time. Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick turn up off and on as school teachers, the former being Lisa's wee crush and the latter just, well, popping up. Mark Ruffalo gets a stunningly short amount of screen time as the bus driver that causes this big mess, but in the one scene where he's given a whole lot to do, he is fantastic. So is Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays his wife. J. Smith-Cameron is fantastic as Lisa's actress mother, Joan, who goes through some existential crises of her own. I kinda felt like her storyline that follows her love affair with Jean Reno was a little bit unimportant - but then again, that's not the only time it occurs in this film. Kieran Culkin is pretty good, as is Allison Janney in her extremely small role. Jeannie Berlin is probably the standout, as the woman who helps Lisa try and get to the bottom of this bus accident. Some of these characters don't stay around long, some of them stay around too long - but that's the beauty of it: these people aren't really forced into the film, they just come and go. It is all a big party for Lisa, really, and that party just happens to go for three hours.
I cannot stress enough how flawed and choppy Margaret is, but this isn't the kind of film that I can deem as "bad" or "The Room". If Margaret survives on anything, it survives on the ambition. Kenneth Lonergan's ambition bleeds through every word, and I admire how he managed to stick with his project for so long. The fact that I had to stick with his project for a little longer than I wanted to wasn't really a problem - when ambition shines through like that, those three hours didn't seem to matter one bit.
What I got: