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MARGARET

 

The story behind "Margaret" is worthy of a "Moneyball"-like drama, this one concerning a champ re-designated underdog after nightmarish difficulties stood in the way of his labor of pure love.

 

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan intended for this movie to come in 2005. Six years after its original intended time, "Margaret" is now in limited theaters, and with a horrific backstory to boot. But it feels necessary here to share its story; more necessary than a lot of movies. After all, what could have been driving Lonergan to stay so particular to his vision, throughout six years and multiple different cuts? What's so important for Lonergan to say that he insisted on 149 minutes of running time to explore it? What could he have been fighting for so desperately?

 

Of course, because Fox Searchlight wants to bury this film and never again return to its grave, it has received extremely slim promotion. "Margaret" was only given its release date of today a month ago. (This might explain why only 600+ people saw it in Los Angeles or New York last week during its premiere week). But don't let poor marketing deter you from seeing one of the best movies this year.

Anna Paquin plays Lisa, a typical teenager. Her parents are divorced, her mother (J. Cameron Smith) works nights (as an actress, mind you). Lisa has a crush on the handsome math teacher (Matt Damon), flirts with boys and drugs, sometimes at the same time.

 

Lisa's life is changed forever when she indirectly causes a bus (driven by Mark Ruffalo) to run over and kill a woman (Allison Janney) on the street. While the rest of her teenage years continue to play out in regular order, she struggles to deal with the event, and with the manner in which the bus driver and the victimís family handle such a tragedy.

 

Lisa is a difficult character. She screams a lot, she says things that she doesnt understand the ramifications of (like when she calls her older friend strident), and she thinks adults should tolerate her behavior whether they agree with it or not. On script, she is the perfect molding of a teenager, without any bullshit quirks or simple clique associations.

 

On screen, Lisa is brilliantly brought to life by Paquin, who immerses herself in this role with endless intensity. Working with a tall order of emotional scenes that often have her crying and screaming around adults that she feels equal to, Paquin sells every one of her freak-outs, grabbing the audience with her as she encounters extraordinary circumstances.

Placed in such heavy predicaments, Lisa learns some extraordinary things about humanity, which are in turn especially striking statements by Lonergan to us about human nature. A scene in which Lisa confronts Maretti about the accident, and asks him to admit responsibility, is especially emotionally disturbing for Lisa, and subsequently for us.

 

The unique power behind the beauty of "Margaret" is that Lonergan aims to have us take a second look at not just the movie's world, but also our own world, yet without the corrupted perspectives of our maturity. Lonergan wants us to re-examine our entire nature through the eyes of a

regular teenager, with her naivete and immaturity intact. He's able to accomplish such an effective feat with Paquin's magnificent surrogate performance.

 

The perspectives that "Margaret" wrestles with concerning guilt and selfishness are profound, along with his film-long discussion about whether aging actually tampers with a person's humanity (something even debated in one of the film's high school scenes). As a student says in the "Margaret," "Teenagers arenít corrupted like adults... they havenít had a chance to burn out."

 

"Margaret" is full of an excellent cast of burn outs, who make small yet poignant contributions to the opera that becomes Lisa's life. Notable names like Allison Janney and Mark Ruffalo have only one or two scenes in the film, but their time is well spent for service of both the story, and of maintaining the high standard of acting within the film. Both are used for pivotal emotional points in the film. Working with such a natural script, the two are highly resonant in just their few minutes on-screen.

Matthew Broderick peeks into the movie for a few scenes as one of Lisa's teachers, and stands to raise the movieís direct literary questions (he is the one who reads the poem that inspires the movie's title). Matt Damon appears briefly as Lisa's teacher crush, but is not in possession of any star power. (If you're expecting to see a lot of him in "Margaret," don't.)

 

Lonergan's potential as a writer/director are not limited to making his actors do great things Ė his cinematic sense is just as beautiful, and allows the messages of "Margaret" to come through earnestly without being preachy. The film is colored with beautiful segments of slow motion that have Lisa walking through New York City while a perfectly chosen piece of music, Tarrega's "Recuerdos De La Alhambra," plays.

 

Lonergan shows his affection for New York City, and of its many diverse inhabitants, with calm cinematography that usually captures the city at night, or look up at the skyscrapers during daytime (a possible nudging for the viewer of connecting the movie's tragedy and 9/11).

 

The ambition of "Margaret" can be hard to wrap oneís self around Ė the running time can be a little heavy, and there are moments where the film seems to bring too much focus on the legal aspects of its center tragedy. Once the film's other components become clear, and feel united in a Lonergan's interest with the teenager, we can only be glad that Lonergan fought through his own real life creative tragedy to finally deliver his own special work of art.

 

With such length and depth, "Margaret" even had me considering a lower score, but the movie's size was too resist looking into, especially when keeping in mind Lonergan's efforts to make things exactly the way they are now.

 

"Margaret" is a beautiful opera of our modern age, featuring a more than award-worthy performance from Anna Paquin. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's determination through tragedy has left him with something magnificent.   -- NICK ALLEN, is also a film critic for The Scorecard Review and member of Chicago Film Critics Association

 

NICK ALLEN

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