Highly ambitious, structurally complex, and frequently powerful, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” is a coming-of-age tale for the ages, an epic examination of all the unsung “lessons” of adolescence that never get depicted with much accuracy or focus in film. Shot in 2005 and held up in post-production hell until 2011, “Margaret” was given a very small, very limited release by Fox Searchlight Pictures (it entered just 14 theaters nationwide) and would have been completely forgotten if it weren’t for a critical grassroots movement that all but saved the film from obscurity. Though many mainstream critics at the time balked at its messiness and supposedly “punishing” running time (the theatrical release is 150 minutes long; the extended cut is 186 minutes), just as many writers and critics found it to be one of the best, most original films of the year. Five years later, “Margaret” stands as one of the very best films released this decade.
The core of the film centers on privileged, entitled Upper West Side teenager Lisa (Anna Paquin in a fearless performance) as she reels from a traumatic bus accident she inadvertently causes. While she distracts bus driver Gerald Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), he accidentally runs a red light and hits pedestrian Monica Patterson (Allison Janney) who subsequently dies in Lisa’s arms. Though she initially tells the police that Monica was walking against traffic, she changes her story out of remorse. But when she confronts Maretti about his part in the accident, he denies any involvement, and she’s subsequently drawn into a complex wrongful death lawsuit involving herself and Monica’s friend Emily Smith (Jeannie Berlin), seeking monetary damages and the dismissal of Maretti. But that narrative throughline is just a small part of Lonergan’s larger cinematic tapestry. Lonergan never retains sole focus on the traumatic event and its aftermath, but rather constantly digresses from it to other seemingly mundane and “irrelevant” storylines and scenes: Lisa’s fights with her classmates over terrorism, Middle Eastern politics, and censorship; Lisa’s various relationships with the men in her life, including close friend Darren (John Gallagher Jr.), smug, holier-than-thou classmate Paul (Kieran Culkin), to whom she loses her virginity, and math teacher Aaron (Matt Damon); and the professional and personal life of actress Joan Cohen (J. Smith-Cameron), Lisa’s mother, as she acts in a new play and dates her new boyfriend Ramon (Jean Reno).
An unperceptive viewer might argue that Lonergan stuffs “Margaret” with a whole bunch of ideas that he simply refused to cut in the editing room, but arguably the “point” of the film is that it doesn’t tell a linear story about a bus accident’s effect on a young girl, but rather depicts the world’s cosmic indifference to that young girl’s plight. Most films maintain laser-focus on a single story, but “Margaret” illustrates the world around the story, and how life moves on for the majority of people unaffected by a profoundly important event in one person’s life. (This idea was initially emphasized by an intricate sound design that featured “the voices of the city,” snippets of unremarkably dialogue from strangers whom we never meet that keep interrupting or intruding on the focus of a scene; some of this mix exists in the extended cut.) Frustrated and occasionally strident, Lisa tries to do the right thing by taking responsibility for her actions and all she gets in return is a sea of complex, competing agendas that have little care for her own personal goals. In effect, she’s seeking to punish herself for her own lapse of judgment, but she instead discovers a world that has little interest in the up-on-high, smite-thee-for-your-sins punishment she so desires. Life, Lonergan argues, is more complicated, and ultimately less conventionally, or “dramatically”, fulfilling than that.
With “Margaret,” Lonergan meditates on many unacknowledged coming-of-age truths not limited to learning about benign cruelty of the world. Formally and narratively, the film hinges on the idea that arguably the most important lesson of growing up is accepting the broader world outside of your own narrow perspective, that you are not the protagonist in a novel about you but rather one tiny spec participating in a larger human and social experiment. Aside from a few scenes — including an emotionally volatile dismissal from Emily who tells Lisa that she doesn’t want to get sucked into her own self-dramatization, and that just because she cares more easily than others only indicates her youth and nothing else — Lonergan barely tips his hand in this direction, basically allowing (or, depending on your perspective, forcing) the viewer to catch up with this idea. Throughout the film, Lisa tries her damnedest to navigate an adult world, adopting a faux-nuanced perspective even amongst her peers, and routinely comes up against her own emotional, physical, and maturational limitations. Lonergan only exhibits profound empathy for Lisa even at her most obnoxious because of her strong moral/ethical compass — almost every choice and decision she makes has its roots in either admirable behavior or ordinary youthful recklessness — but he also doesn’t spare her from a painful, universal fate: The black-and-white, right-or-wrong absolute principles we adopt in our youth are well-intentioned, but are always complicated beyond repair once they’re imposed on the larger world.
Beyond that thematic fulcrum, “Margaret” also contains so much life in its frame, demonstrating Lonergan’s slavish commitment to capturing the rhythms of daily life in a medium that all but rejects that concept (at least in narrative cinema). It’s not just that scenes last longer than they normally do in film — in effect embracing the awkward, stop-and-start tempo of human interaction — but it’s also the keenly perceptive approach to life’s small realties. It exists in the passionate, intelligent, yet still naive way Lisa and her classmates engage with political topics beyond their grade level, or in the sympathetic-yet-suspicious approach Gerald’s wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) takes to Lisa when she shows up unannounced at her door, or even in the familiarly antagonistic relationship Lisa has with her mother, a woman who sadly watches her daughter grow up before her eyes while she’s mired in her own professional and personal life. (Incidentally, “Margaret” is one of the few films I can think of that allows fundamentally good teenagers to be merciless assholes, something that is too rare in our modern landscape.) Lonergan tries to capture the sprawling, unwieldy nature of life by effectively making a sprawling, unwieldy film, and for those those who can lock into it, “Margaret” to this day still feels like a breath of fresh air.