The main character in Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s long-delayed follow-up to You Can Count On Me, is a Manhattan high school student named Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), who describes herself as a “mess of conflicting impulses.” In this dense, extraordinarily ambitious film about personal and public responsibility, a woman (Allison Janney) is hit by a bus and dies a wrenching, bloody death in Lisa’s arms. The accident is indirectly Lisa’s fault; oblivious to the safety of others, she was distracting the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) with all the selfish force of a girl in fresh possession of a woman’s body.
Is the dead woman, whose specter comes to plague Lisa’s guilty conscience, the Margaret of the title? Logic suggests it, but no: she’s Monica. Margaret is an obscure reference, plucked from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about grieving, called Spring and Fall: To a Young Child. Lisa’s stodgy English teacher (Matthew Broderick) reads the poem to her class in a scene buried deep within the movie. The lines — Ah! as the heart grows older, it will come to such sights colder — refer to Lisa; she comes to all sights, including her own moral quandary over having lied to the accident investigators, with a feverish heat. Filled with the innocent arrogance of youth, she’s practically a loaded gun, the scariest teen since Evan Rachel Wood in Thirteen.
No wonder Lisa’s mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan’s wife), an actress who has her own maturity issues, looks as worn as an ER doctor in a disaster zone. The potent Margaret, with a tone as gloomy and sometimes as heavy as the establishing shots of overcast New York skylines that Lonergan uses ad nauseum — enough with the tree branches against clouds — may exhaust as many as it rewards. But Paquin is spectacular. The character is almost too precocious, prone to dropping George Bernard Shaw phrases into her speech — “Not that I want to make this woman’s death into my own personal moral gymnasium.” Yet in Paquin’s hands, Lisa is completely believable, and the realization of the potential the actress showed in supporting roles in 25th Hour and The Squid and the Whale. Margaret was shot in 2005, well before Paquin’s transformation into a taut, tanned blonde for True Blood, and in comparison, sprightly Sookie Stackhouse seems very limited.
Lisa’s passage from willful brat to a person having a germ of self-awareness is the main focus of the story, but Lonergan has as much on his mind as a contemporary novelist such as Don DeLillo or Jonathan Franzen, and a far more finite time to share it (Margaret was cut from a reported three hour length to a still bulky 149 minutes). There are ferocious teenaged debates about 9/11 (sweet but tedious), reflections on what happens to a girl with an absent, passive father (Lonergan, calling in from Dad’s place in Santa Monica) and some astute scenes involving Lisa’s love interests, the cool guy (Kieran Culkin), the callow sweetheart (John Gallegher Jr.) and her faculty crush (Matt Damon). There’s also an unnecessary subplot about Joan’s sad dating life.
But the ramifications of that fatal accident dominate as Lisa tries to make amends and issue punishment, meeting with transit authority inspectors, lawyers and the dead woman’s best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin). The frustrations of bureaucracy and the justice system are plumbed in depth, including the way hope of punitive damages can feed mercenary instincts. There’s so much legal detail that having watched, I almost feel ready for law school. But I’d put up with every scene involving attorneys for the sake of Berlin’s careening performance. One minute Emily seems like the senior version of Lisa, swearing, slurring and snapping inappropriately at people; the next, she’s being savagely wise as she dresses Lisa down. “We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life,” she tells the girl. “This is not an opera.”
Except it sort of is. I neglected to mention the subplot about the joys and curative powers of opera, used to devastating effect in a finale set at a Lincoln Center performance of The Tales of Hoffman. Lonergan didn’t bite off more than he could chew with Margaret — this is his personal moral gymnasium — but he did bite off more than others might want to chew. Lonergan and various producers have apparently been wrangling over editing and running time for years, in and out of court, to the point where some doubted the film would ever be released. Margaret is slipping into theaters with little fanfare, but at least these great performances are seeing the light of day. As for its length, well, it’s shorter by eight minutes than the last Transformers film.