I used to wonder what happened to Kenneth Lonergan, director of a film I adore, You Can Count on Me. It’s been roughly a dozen years since that near masterpiece of a film was released. Apparently Longergan was in a bit of a mess with Fox Searchlight over his next film which was shot in 2005. That film, Margaret finally found its way out in a very limited theater release in 2011. And in 2012 I finally got to see it.
The plot driving Margaret is rather simple. A high school girl, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), witnesses a bus accident she feels she was at least partially at fault for. Lisa then struggles to deal with the aftermath. Rather straightforward yet the layers are many. The people weaving in and out of Lisa’s life, some right through the core and others on the periphery, are numerous. Scenes from one story line cut abruptly into another.
Lisa is an unlikable character. Before the accident wrecks havoc on her, she is shown to be manipulative. In fairness, the adults in her lives aren’t exactly role models. Her math teacher (Matt Damon) proves to cross the line from caring to creepy. Her dad is on the other coast and is so passive in his moments on screen that it makes Lisa look like a competent decision maker. Lisa’s mom is a broadway actress who takes care of Lisa and her brother in New York City but most of the film shows the young grade school boy fending for himself. He seems to enter and leave the house on a whim. Lisa does the same.
Margaret attempts to examine the lives of those in and around Lisa’s life. There are powerful scenes mixed throughout, the problem becomes the thin thread that holds it all together. The film could have been five hours long and only scratched the surface of the many topics and themes hinted at throughout the theatrical cut. The editing seems frantically disjointed at times as characters flash on the screen and then sometimes don’t reappear until much later, if at all.
In between all the chaos is Lisa’s attempt at ensuring justice is served to the bus driver behind the wheel of the accident. She goes from traumatized teenager to a justice crusader. We’re never sure if she is sincere about her pursuit of justice or simply thriving off the drama. Even the best friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), of the victim confronts Lisa on the motives behind Lisa’s sudden interest in making a case. The interactions between Emily and Lisa are tense. But as tense and as strong as those moments are, they never reach a resolution that is satisfying one way or the other.
A two and a half hour sprawling drama centered on a generally unlikeable character does not sound appealing. Oddly enough it’s also not a chore, thanks mostly to director and writer Kenneth Lonergan’s penchant for writing scenes that more than hold interest. Margaret is at least two very good films hiding inside one good one. A strange formula but fitting for a film with such a struggle in getting a final release.