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Margaret: Well Worth the Wait

By Ryan Mason · October 3, 2011

Margaret has been a long time coming.

Having been a monster fan of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s previous film, 2000’s You Can Count On Me, I anxiously awaited his follow-up when I first heard about it last decade. Anxiously waiting, though, turned to periods of completely forgetting about Lonergan, leaving me to ask myself, “When is that guy going to do another flick?” only to later remember that he had already done another flick. It was shot, in the can, ready to hit screens four years ago. Problem was that he and Fox Searchlight Pictures couldn’t agree on Lonergan’s lengthy, 150-minute-long cut. Court cases ensued.

Years went by. Neither side budged. Finally, Martin Scorsese and acclaimed editor Thelma Schoonmaker jumped onboard to take a pass, pleasing both parties, and here we are. 11 years later, we have Lonergan’s sophomore effort.

However, it is a slightly odd experience since it’s evident that it was shot roughly six years ago, and we’re just now seeing it: Matt Damon looks so thin and young; Anna Paquin in her pre-blonde, pre-True Blood days; and cinema marquees show the latest features being Flightplan and Roll Bounce. Those years make a difference, especially with faces as familiar as Paquin’s and Damon’s. It’s like someone introduced you to a great film that you somehow had never heard or seen before and brought over the DVD for you to watch. Only you’re in a theater with a bunch of people all in the same boat.

So, how does it stack up? Let’s just say that Margaret doesn’t disappoint.

Lonergan is a playwright at heart and, thus, like his previous cinematic effort, Margaret’s strengths come from its screenplay and its acting – which is quite an important thing considering this isn’t your high concept popcorn flick; it’s a drama whose plot derives from its characters. Paquin plays 17-year-old Lisa Cohen, an entitled high schooler living in Manhattan with her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) and little brother, Curtis (Cyrus Hernstadt). In preparation for a horseback-riding trip with her dad (Lonergan himself), Lisa scours the Upper West Side for a cowboy hat, only to find one on a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo). She tries to get his attention as he drives away, which ends up going terribly awry, leading to the tragic death of a pedestrian (Allison Janney, in a fantastic small but crucial role).

For an over-two-and-a-half hour character drama, Margaret moves fast. And much is owed to Paquin’s fantastic performance. To be perfectly honest, she tends to annoy me. Something about how she talks gets under my skin, and I worried that 150 minutes of her would get tedious. But, Lonergan casts her brilliantly as he leverages those mannerisms to help her create this highly flawed but thoroughly three-dimensional character. Many times I found myself despising Lisa for being so immaturely judgmental only to then have another scene again make me sympathize for her. And as the other characters in the film start to say the things we want to say to her, it becomes incredibly therapeutic. Lonergan crafts a story that allows for a sympathetic yet rather unlikeable main character because the very situation that sets the story in motion is one that mirrors that conflicting feeling. You want to be able to blame the bus driver, but then you want to blame Lisa, but then you want to blame the driver, going round and round in this maddening, endless blame cycle. Margaret’s central conflict is the epitome of life’s gray area, that space in which we all live yet rarely see exemplified up on the big screen where audiences tend to prefer our heroes and villains portrayed in clear-cut black and white. It’s only fitting that we’re unsure of just how much we like Lisa.

However, the true shining jewel in this flick is J. Smith-Cameron. Wow. What a revelation. She exudes such humanity as Joan Cohen, a single mother of two as well as a successful Broadway actress. When you boil it down to its essence, Margaret is about Lisa and Joan’s relationship. Like many other mother-daughter situations when the latter is in the throes of adolescence, their lines of communication leave much to be desired, most of their conversations devolving into yelling matches where one finally exclaims that she doesn’t know what they’re even arguing about, to which the younger of the two responds with, “And that’s the problem.” I’m not even a parent and that scene made me livid. Smith-Cameron pulled off so much in her scenes, never feeling like a stock single mom that we’ve seen plenty of times before.

Lonergan refused to cut his film down to under two hours to please the studio in order for it to be released. At first blush, it seems like that could’ve been the result of an egotistical filmmaker. Although after seeing the finished product and realizing that there wasn’t a single superfluous scene, it’s clear that Lonergan was right. I just hope that it’s not another decade before his next one.