The title “Margaret” comes not from a character in this movie but from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poem that suggests how all sadness has its source in one’s own awareness of death.
And death is all over this movie. But hang on: Before you stop reading, give it a chance. “Margaret” is a challenge, and not very user-friendly, but on its own terms it’s a remarkable film.
“Margaret” is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who did the wonderful “You Can Count on Me” in 2000. The new movie was actually shot in 2005, but for a variety of legal and artistic reasons, has been stuck in limbo since then.
The central character is a teenager, Lisa Cohen (played by Anna Paquin), an unusually smart, bratty and difficult kid.
Her life shifts when she witnesses a fatal accident on the streets of Manhattan one afternoon. Actually she’s more than a witness; she plays a role in the chain of events that leads a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) to distractedly run over a woman crossing the street.
The rest of the story stems from this incident: Lisa’s initial impulse to fudge the truth of what happened, and later to reveal everything. The accident looms even when Lisa is plowing through the normal obstacle course of being a teenager: the uninterrupted, ongoing battle with her mother, an actress (J. Cameron-Smith, terrific), or her curiosity about sex, or her crush on a teacher (Matt Damon).
Perhaps the bravest thing about any of this is that Lisa is nothing like the plucky heroine of a conventional coming-of-age picture. She’s a mess, and as abrasive as she is nervy. She does the wrong thing, repeatedly … and I don’t think there was a minute when she didn’t seem like an alive and heartbreakingly authentic character.
Anna Paquin, who won an Oscar when she was a kid for her role in “The Piano,” is something special, too. As an adult performer Paquin hasn’t always looked comfortable in her own skin, but here she’s electrifying. (Her absence from the Oscar nominees announced this week is a glaring omission from a pretty lousy overall list.)
Smaller roles are ably filled by Jeannie Berlin, Jean Reno, Matthew Broderick, and — briefly, but unforgettably — Allison Janney. Lonergan himself plays Lisa’s father, a voice on the telephone a continent away.
Speaking of that communication breakdown, “Margaret,” in scene after scene, etches the difficulty of making oneself understood, or of understanding someone else. Whether at a dinner table or in a lawyer’s office hunched around a speakerphone, people are constantly talking across each other instead of with each other, a state of things that is as true for the teenage Lisa as it is for the official grown-ups.
As a filmmaker, Lonergan is so observant on this subject that I found it easy enough to overlook the movie’s rough edges (he’s a superb writer, but not a born director).
But I spent most of this film’s 150-minute running time being kind of amazed at the exasperating, thorny, wise movie that was unfolding. It took six years to get it released, but it was worth it.
A kind of amazing movie from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”), about a Manhattan teenager (Anna Paquin, electrifying) who flounders through her life in the wake of a violent accident. The movie is full of difficult, abrasive characters and a few rough edges, but it’s extremely well-observed and sharply acted.
Rated: R for language, nudity, subject matter.