Shot between 2004 and 2006, Margaret was acquired by Fox Searchlight and set for a 2007 release. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan toiled for years in the editing room, causing lawsuits and all kinds of other drama over the missed release date. Eventually, Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Shoonmaker were able to trim the movie down to the studio-mandated two and a half hour run time, but Lonergan wanted a three hour cut and still claims this finished version isn’t his true vision for the film. Finally dumped unceremoniously for a one-week run in theaters in 2011, Margaret is being revived for a brief run at the Cinefamily Theater in Los Angeles this week, and I couldn’t resist seeing what all the fuss was about.
Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) lives in New York City with her mother and brother, but is planning a visit to New Mexico to stay with her father for the summer. While searching the Upper West Side for a cowboy hat – an apparent must-have for the horseback riding activities she’s been anticipating – Lisa sees a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing one and tries to flag him down to ask where he got it. To Lisa’s horror, the distracted driver runs a red lights and hits a woman (Allison Janney), who dies in Lisa’s arms. All of this happens in the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie, and the rest of the film details how Lisa copes with the aftermath of the accident.
Margaret is the most frustrating portrayal of teenage behavior I’ve seen on film, and it may also be the most accurate. Anna Paquin gives an astonishing performance, full of all of the complicated emotionality of being young and having an answer for everything. Her Lisa is a pseudo-intellectual, getting into heated arguments with classmates over politics and constantly battling her mother with the kind of superior attitude that makes you hope you were never like that when you were that age. In fact, Lisa screams at almost everyone she encounters, using her position as a witness to (and partial participant in) the bus crash as a platform, desperate to be seen and respected as an intellectual equal to the adults around her.
One of the most interesting things about this film is the way New York City is portrayed. From the opening credits of people walking in slow motion through crosswalks, the film seems to have a detached perspective not dissimilar from Lisa’s views on life. In many instances, there’s almost a tilt-shift photography element to the way the city is shot; there’s no personality to its people, just ants scurrying through a timeless ant-hill that will be there long after they all die. In one sequence, Lisa and her mother are in the backseat of a cab at night. Buses and buildings surround them on all sides, threatening to swallow the vehicle into its unforgiving urban stomach. Contrasted with Lisa’s father’s breezy life in California (we only see him talking on the phone as he looks out over the calming ocean), Lonergan’s New York is a prison of harsh life experience waiting to happen. Even Matt Damon’s character, a teacher from Indiana, was lured there by the city’s mystique and nearly destroyed by its claustrophobic temptations.
The editing in Margaret is a clear indication of the fight Lonergan had with the studio. It’s unclear how certain relationships begin, and other sequences end right in the middle of a scene, sometimes to jarring effect. These are tell-tale signs of a director who wanted a three hour film but a studio who demanded thirty minutes stay on the cutting room floor. Though it’s noticeable that parts are missing, Margaret still feels mostly coherent. It’s uneven, but the overall truth it reaches is presumably just as effective as a longer cut’s would have been.
It’s easy to see why a #TeamMargaret movement started among film critics last year, and their efforts have succeeded (at least in part) in getting the film more recognition. The supporting cast is good, but this is Paquin’s movie all along, and her acting is top-notch. She’s explosive and convincing, revealing a teenage state of mind that’s rarely captured on screen in such a natural way. These characters are so multifaceted that even when it’s painful to watch, Margaret is rewarding. Until next time…