A coming-of-age tale infused with post-9/11 anxiety, Margaret features Anna Paquin as Lisa, a 17-year-old whose role in a fatal Upper West Side bus accident leads her to act out sexually, antagonize her self-absorbed single mom and obsessively pursue retribution on behalf of the accident victim. (There is no character named Margaret — the film gets its title from "Spring and Fall," a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem musing on a child's heightened emotional state and obliviousness to the ephemerality of feelings.)
Is Lisa traumatized — or is she simply a teenager? The movie makes that ambiguity fascinating by refusing to make those options mutually exclusive. Both dryly funny and deeply affecting, Margaret is novelistic in its scope and theatrical in its approach. Its performances are heightened but its gaze is distanced, even distracted; there's no audience surrogate, because identifying with a character would prevent us from seeing him or her as a complete person.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's (You Can Count on Me) most obvious model for this remarkably messy movie might be the great American novel, but Margaret's rambling structure and infectious restlessness also are an analogue for digital multitasking. At our computers, we follow one link, then another, then another, and then, almost as if in a trance, we end up at a destination we didn't expect. We keep multiple tabs open in a browser, bouncing back and forth between different concerns without letting any of them dominate focus, chatting and listening to music all the while. In form and content, it mirrors the mundane chaos that we somehow manage to navigate every moment of our lives.
Shot in 2005 — Paquin, now 29, credibly plays barely legal — Margaret was delayed first by Lonergan's inability to whittle the film down to a contractual length of under two and a half hours (he sought editing counsel from Martin Scorsese, who called an early cut of Margaret "a masterpiece"), and then a number of lawsuits, one of which remains outstanding. In September 2011, three years after the movie was taken out of Lonergan's hands, Searchlight gave a 149-minute version of Margaret a token theatrical release. Given no marketing support aside from a god-awful, misleading trailer, Margaret tanked at the box office in its initial run and soon disappeared.
As year-end Top 10 list and awards voting deadlines neared, film critics — some who had seen the film and loved it, others who just wanted a chance to decide for themselves — circulated a petition and took to Twitter decrying the film's lack of availability. Go #TeamMargaret, go: Independent theater managers in New York, Chicago and now Los Angeles responded to the evident interest in this unseeable film by booking the movie in limited second runs. It comes to Cinefamily for a week starting Friday.
"I could give you a lot of reasons" for the booking, texted Cinefamily executive director Hadrian Belove. "That Cinefamily's mission is to support hurt films exactly like this, that it's making Top 10 lists right and left, that any film Scorsese got behind is worth a look. But the honest answer is, how else am I gonna see it?" —Karina Longworth (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, Jan. 27-Feb. 2)
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes