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July 13, 2012

Movies You Missed 47: Margaret

MargaretThis week in movies you missed: the most praised film of 2011 that nobody saw.

What You Missed

Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a bright, seen-it-all Manhattan high schooler. When her math teacher (Matt Damon) confronts her about cheating on a test, she blithely tells him math doesn't matter to her. He suggests she'll change her mind one day; has she ever had an experience that altered her whole view of the world? She doesn't hesitate: "No."

Later that afternoon, Lisa goes shopping for a cowboy hat for an upcoming dude-ranch vacation with her dad, but the only one she spots is on the head of a city bus driver (Mark Ruffalo). She jogs along beside the moving bus, trying to communicate with him through the glass; he shrugs and grins at her flirtatiously. Ahead, a light turns red. A pedestrian (Allison Janney) steps off the curb. The distracted driver brakes too late.

What follows is a brief and harrowing scene that changes the film's tone and Lisa's life, leaving her literally covered in blood.

At first, a shell-shocked Lisa goes along with her mom's suggestion that she tell the cops the light was green, sparing the driver from reprisals. But gradually she comes to believe someone has to be held responsible for the accident, even if it was "just" an accident. The result is a lawsuit that may or may not satisfy Lisa's fierce desire to see the universe put to rights. Her mom (J. Smith-Cameron), the driver, her long-suffering teachers and the dead woman's best friend (Jeannie Berlin) will all be pulled into the fray.

Why You Missed It

There's a story behind this one. Margaret was a passion project for writer-director (and successful NYC playwright) Kenneth Lonergan. He shot it back in 2005 and prepared a three-hour cut. Then, says the New York Times:

When it was finally released six years later, in late 2011 — after a brutal and bitter editing process; a failed attempt by no less a cinematic eminence than Martin Scorsese to save the project; and the filing of three lawsuits — several serious film people called it a masterpiece. And almost no one saw it.

Joel Lovell's NYT piece explains in detail what went wrong. Suffice it to say, Margaret reached few theaters, none in Vermont, and even its DVD release was belated.

Should You Keep Missing It?

No. Certain things about Margaret feel dated: 9/11 references, nobody using iPhones, Anna Paquin looking like a teenager. The premise — overarticulate teen tortures everyone around her with her own guilt — doesn't sound promising. The title — which refers to a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem; nobody in the film is named Margaret — may strike you as pretentious. But never mind any of that. I liked this a lot.

It's a movie about teenage idealism from a distinctly adult, non-nostalgic perspective. In one scene, Lisa and her classmates debate the question of whether teenagers should rule the world. One girl voices the standard opinion that adolescents are purer and less corrupted than adults.

But are teens moved more deeply by life's tragedies, or just moved more "easily"? That's what the victim's friend suggests when she starts to suspect that Lisa is romanticizing her own role in the accident and turning it into an "opera" with herself as the heroine.

Of course, it's not just teens who find it hard to separate life and drama. Lisa's mother is a successful actress, and one subplot concerns her fitful attempts to connect to a new lover (Jean Reno), who seems to understand her better on stage than in person.

None of these themes are shoehorned in. Lonergan goes for a rough and realistic approach with the focus on excellent performances, just as he did in his acclaimed first movie, You Can Count on Me (which made Ruffalo a star).

On the visual level, his long shots of the city — from sidewalk or rooftop level — suggest a larger context for the story, one that includes the raw wound of Ground Zero. (Lisa argues repeatedly with a classmate about the moral status of the U.S. post-attacks.)

Finally, Margaret will remind you why Paquin won that Oscar when she was just 11. (After two seasons of "True Blood," I'd forgotten why, to be honest.) This is a role that plays to her strengths: anger, volatility, Method-y roughness around the edges. Lisa is obnoxious, abrasive, and often unfair, but there's a seeking, struggling quality about her you just can't help responding to.

I watched the 149-minute cut of Margaret that Lonergan prepared at the studio's insistence; it comes packaged with his preferred three-hour cut. The film definitely has some structural problems, but whether the longer cut eliminates or exacerbates them I don't know. Here's a breakdown of the differences.

Verdict: A must for fans of complex, character-driven dramas.

And, because of Sunday, a gratuitous "Breaking Bad" reference:

Krysten Ritter (Jane) appears for a split second as a salesgirl who fails to sell Lisa a cowboy hat. She has a way of indirectly causing accidents, doesn't she?

Other New Releases You May Have Missed

  • Being Flynn (Paul Dano plays Nick Flynn in an adaptation of his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Way better title!)
  • Fightville (documentary about the cultural rise of mixed martial arts)
  • The Flowers of War (Chinese epic about the WWII Japanese invasion, with Christian Bale)
  • Freak Dance (dance-movie parody with Amy Poehler as the "uptight mom")
  • My House Is Full of Mirrors (2010 miniseries with Sophia Loren)

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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