Kenneth Lonergan’s ambitious ‘Margaret’ reappears in theaters

SF Film Society /Courtesy

Wait for someone named “Margaret” to appear in Kenneth Lonergan’s film of that name, and it will be in vain. The title “Margaret” is taken from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall,” addressed to a grieving girl too young and small to understand the enormity of what she grieves for.

Few mourned for or even saw “Margaret” when it ran for a week or two in select cities in September 2011. Now, thanks to a coup of online critics who rallied for an audience, it is returning to the SF Film Society Cinema for one week. You must see it before it vanishes again.

“Margaret” has gone through hell to get here. It finished shooting in 2005, after which it spent years in post-production limbo. Also the man behind 2000’s darling little speck of a movie “You Can Count on Me,” writer/director Lonergan could not produce a cut that satisfied Fox Searchlight Pictures. The one he submitted in 2008 exceeded the film’s current 149-minute running time, so the film spent three years on the shelf. Because of his inexhaustible editing, Lonergan, the film’s distributor and its financier all came under a siege of lawsuits that are still underway. Why did the universe deal “Margaret” such an unfortunate deck? She’s got problems, but who doesn’t?

This film is the cinematic equivalent of the Great American Novel. It deals with Issues, but miraculously manages to avoid being issues-y or preachy at all. The specter of September 11 haunts this movie, but rarely is the event explicitly mentioned. Lonergan paints his film with nary an ounce of treacle — instead, with canny, prickly language and characters as convincingly full-fleshed as anyone you know.

Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a brazen, brash 17-year-old whose youthful ideals are sent careening out of control after she witnesses a bus accident. On the city street, she distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), causing him to run over a pedestrian. The crash is told in gruesome, unsettling images.

The casualty, a woman named Monica Patterson (Allison Janney), has lost her leg. Lisa, who just wanted to ask where the driver got his cowboy hat, rushes to save her. The dying woman tells her that her daughter is also named Lisa. Blood sprays the rabble of onlookers. The woman is consumed by amnesia, blindness and, finally, gentle death.

Lisa goes home to the small apartment she shares with her stage-actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron, who is so, so good) and kid brother. Her clothes run red. She is covered in guilt and shame and a host of ineffable, unformed emotions. She is America soaked in blood, a witness to tragedy and catastrophe who will forever struggle with what she has seen and done. “Margaret” should not be compressed into allegory — that’s too reductive for such an ambitious work — but Lisa does something to suggest our post-9/11 PTSD

Then she starts acting out. She tramples all over her mother. She twiddles with a couple of boys’ hearts like the seeds of a dandelion. She makes ignorant remarks and passes judgment at her peers and teachers, who all take umbrage at Lisa’s boisterous sense of entitlement and wily way of luring people — people who should know better — into her mire of self-importance and delusions of grandeur.

But Lisa finds self-realization in pursuing retribution for Monica’s death, meddling in the lives of the bus driver and the accident victim’s surviving best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin). But in her quest for atonement, despite her derring-do and cunning, Lisa is trapped in her callow, 17-year-old worldview. She treats the world like her own moral gymnasium.

None of this makes Lisa sound very likable, but it’s not intended to. “Margaret” has a sprawling, dilatory scope that captures the manic energy of New York City and of its heroine. Anna Paquin is the soul of this movie, and she is Lonergan’s muse. The film is obsessed with her. She is annoying, unctuous, tough-as-nails and precocious, but somehow, we love her like Lonergan does. We are embarrassed for her the way we are embarrassed for ourselves when we think about something stupid we did as a teenager, and the way we were willful toward our parents when all they wanted was to know us. Can’t we sympathize with, or at least understand, someone upon whom the insurmountable expectations of the world are being levied full-force? A girl who can’t keep up with the violent current of the status quo, or maybe doesn’t want to?

But “Margaret” isn’t always poetry. It was on the shelf for a reason. The film gets itself into trouble in its final third. The first two hours are an exceptional drama, and the last a brittle melodrama, with impetuous pacing and slipshod editing that occlude our comprehension of the story. The dialogue sputters and screeches, like when Lisa and Emily tussle over the meaning of “strident.” Lisa’s investment in Monica starts to feel unmotivated, and the film’s interests seem to change, thrusting us into the red tape rigmarole of a court case (like Lonergan himself today) rather than into character depths.

But, like a deus ex machina done right, this burned-out third act rises from the cinders and reignites in an ending as operatic, glorious and giddy as that of Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.” That film concludes with the end of the world onscreen. What closes Lonergan’s film, a wordless exchange of empathy between Lisa and her mother, is just as cosmos-rattling.

As it came to an end, I wanted to hug this movie. But “Margaret” hugged me.

Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.