Review: ‘Margaret’ is a Beautiful, Honest, and Poignant Mess

By  · Published on October 3rd, 2011

Review: ‘Margaret’ is a Beautiful, Honest, and Poignant Mess

After all these years of Margaret being stuck in legal and release limbo, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Kenneth Lonergan’s (subtle) post-9/11 film turned out to be a misfire. All the turmoil made it doubtful that we’d ever get the masterpiece that Scorsese and many others claimed Lonergan’s film to be. The final, two-and-a-half-hour cut – which is unfortunately being dumped on a few screens – actually features hints of that masterpiece.

Those hints, ultimately, make for a messy-yet-poignant dramatic opera about the power of regret, loss, and worst of all, being a teenager.

Lonergan aims high in a way that, even if Margaret was a disaster, it’d still be an admirable (but failed) passion project. This isn’t that film, though. The playwright’s tremendous You Can Count on Me was small-scale, but full of power. His follow-up attempts to operate on a grand-scale, and it contains most of the power exhibited in his directorial debut.

If Lonergan had his druthers, this could have been a masterpiece. Hyperbole aside, the pieces are here to make for a powerhouse film; the actors are all playing at the top of their game, Lonergan strikes a realism rarely seen in films, and there a handful of brutal, funny, and moving moments that we’ve all once experienced, particularly when it comes to the core coming-of-age story.

Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is like many teenagers. She’s pretentious, emotional, experimental, and is constantly yelling foul against the world. Lisa believes nobody understands her, and that every common problem is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Yes, this all comes off as a description of the typical angry teen archetype, but describing the work Lonergan and Paquin do with Lisa cannot be done with justice.

It’s raw and beautiful, and you have to experience it for yourself. Paquin’s been impressive before – Buffalo Soldiers, The Squid and the Whale, 25th Hour – and she’s a near-revelation here. The performance is painfully honest, one that’s rarely seen. It’s a real head-turner that Paquin is capable of delving to such depths.

Her surrounding players manage to go to deep depths as well, but in a different and very challenging way. Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Jean Reno, and Matthew Broderick’s roles are extremely limited in screen time, and yet leave a lasting impact. Ruffalo plays the bus driver, Maretti, that runs a red light because Lisa distracted him, and winds up running over a civilian – the spark that sets off Lisa’s wild and relatable emotions.

After a failed attempt to confide and connect with Maretti, who comes off abrasive and slightly careless on the surface, Lisa decides to retract her statements to the police and bring down the man who wouldn’t allow himself to break down to her emotional level. In Ruffalo’s big scene – which is, like most of the film, low-key – you feel Maretti’s pain, something Lisa is absolutely blind to. The teenager is not alone in her regretful suffering, but since Maretti is a family man and not a hormonal teen, he won’t show emotion in the way that Lisa expects and wants him to.

It’s powerful moments like these that could lead to another film on its own. Ruffalo has around five minutes of screen time, and thanks to some expectedly sharp writing from Lonergan, a great conflict is struck at. The same goes for nearly every other supporting cast member, even the littler-seen Matthew Broderick. There’s a hilarity and sadness to all of his appearances, such as when he’s laughed at by a pair of teenage girls for his rational and adult thinking when telling them not to smoke a joint in public. What a square, right? How often have we all seen that nice, helpful professor be snickered at by students? Wouldn’t that hurt a man simply trying to help the snobby kids? It would, and Lonergan gets this idea across, simply by tracking behind Broderick’s head after being emasculated.

Coming out of Margaret, the obvious problems will be the first topic of discussion; but more importantly, after reflecting further on the film, it starts to grow on me in a unique and profound way, like that sadness to Broderick’s professor. Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited epic is an elegant, subtle, and empathetic portrayal of common problems and common people – people we all know and, in some ways, are. The apparent masterpiece trying to break out in Margaret is what one should take away from this experience, not the studio and legal problems that caused its obvious structural and editing issues.

The Upside: Lonergan’s script is deep and rich; it’s an honest portrayal of teen life; captures all the little moments in life that are rarely shown on film; it’s hilarious, mainly due to the likes of Kieran Culkin and Matthew Broderick; Anna Paquin proves to be far more capable than what she’s given to do on True Blood.

The Downside: A few jarring structure issues, especially in the last hour; Matt Damon’s character doesn’t add much thematically or structurally; Olivia Thirlby’s brief appearance is a minor distraction.

On The Side: To give you an idea of this film’s gestation period, there’s a theater marquee showing listings for Flightplan and Serenity.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.