They’re calling this the movie that never had a chance. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan shot Margaret in 2005, but his struggles to achieve a final cut (with help from Martin Scorsese), plus contractual difficulties, delayed the release till late in 2011, when Margaret entered and exited most theaters with uncommon speed.
What a shame. Margaret, for all its flaws, is a film of rare beauty and shocking gravity. Anna Paquin, pre-True Blood, gives a stellar performance as Lisa Cohen, a child of divorce who lives with her actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron, superb) in Manhattan while her screenwriter father (Lonergan) phones it in from L.A. One day, Lisa walks alongside a bus whose driver (Mark Ruffalo) wears a hat she covets. Their flirting leads him to run a light and kill a pedestrian (Allison Janney), who lies bloody and broken in Lisa’s arms.
Margaret, a title taken from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, resonates with loss felt deeply by New Yorkers in the shadow of 9/11. For Lisa, it inspires a crusade to connect. She reaches out to the victim’s militant best friend (Jeannie Berlin in an award-caliber performance), then to a teacher (Matt Damon) who takes advantage, and then to a lawsuit that she hopes will bring the driver to justice. What Lisa can’t find is closure. And Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) shares her agonizing search. Yes, Margaret comes apart at the seams as you watch it, but it gives off a lovely light. Seek it out. You can thank me later.