It’s hard to talk about Margaret without mentioning the story behind the scenes. The subject of endless legal disputes, it was shot in 2005, completed in 2008 and finally released just now, with some apparent embarrassment from Searchlight, to just a handful of screens across the world. In the UK, it was released at just one screen in one shitty cinema for just one week. But, of course, you all know about this. Almost all the critics who have seen it have been shouting about it as loud as they can on blogs and twitter (where #TeamMargaret has been trending for a while now), and they’ve managed to make it into as big a hit as it can be: after achieving the highest screen average for a film in the country, it’s being shown in six screens across London this week and – fingers crossed – a wider release might be on the cards. This is because, regardless of what its distributors would have you believe, Margaret is astonishing.
Not everyone will agree with me that Margaret is of the very finest films of the year. Most people see it as a messy, incomplete work, full of great moments and interesting ideas, absolutely worthy of a proper release and due consideration during polling season but ultimately flawed. Not me. Watching Margaret, particularly during its soaring high points, I felt like Kenneth Lonergan had made a film just for me. It was messy and ungainly, sure, but that messiness only compliments the messiness of the post-9/11 world his characters inhabit. If it had been neater it wouldn’t have been half as affecting, if it had been more tightly plotted it wouldn’t have been able to sideswipe me with its soaring emotional highs at any given moment.
So, the story: Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, a highly articulate, highly emotional seventeen year-old brat of a girl who witnesses a bus accident that leaves Alison Janney (who gives a tremendous performance in the two minutes she’s on screen) dead. At first she feels for the driver (Mark Ruffalo) and lies to the cops, telling them the traffic lights were green, but after meeting with her friend (Jeannie Berlin) and witnessing the grief the accident left in its wake, she takes it upon herself to help them sue the driver and make him pay for the guilt that she is obviously feeling herself. On top of this, we have Lisa’s strained relationship with her mother, a stage actress who is just beginning to embark on a relationship, we have Lisa’s romantic trysts with her fellow student Kieran Culkin and her teacher Matt Damon, we have a series of heated classroom debates on everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Shakespeare, and so on, each plotline spiraling outwards in a complex tangle that leaves everyone disoriented and emotions laid bare and exposed.
It plays out like a marriage between Altman and Cassavetes – plotlines stumble over and into each other while the characters explode at one another without a moment’s notice – everyone walks around like open wounds, never making as much sense as they’d like to, trapped in a mid-aughts malaise. It’s never entirely clear how much the film’s choppy, confusing editing style is a result of the film’s fraught editing process or if it’s a deliberate attempt to capture the confusion and sloppiness of modern life, but either way it works beautifully, leaving it characters lost in a world they can never have a sure footing in. It’s a world where no one is really right, no one is really wrong, and redemption only truly comes when people open up to each other and embrace their own deeper emotional truths rather than relentlessly trying to force their own idea of right and wrong on the world around them. At the centre of this collective emotional maelstrom is Lisa, a character so fascinating it may be worth writing a blog post devoted solely to her. “Anna Paquin gives the performance of the year” is obviously a ridiculous sentence to write, but it’s true: she’s hyper-articulate but has no idea what to say, incredibly self-centred but incredibly well-meaning, a complex tangle of emotions at the core of a film about complex, tangled emotions.
It now seems that more and more cinemas are catching on to Margaret, which is nothing but a good thing. Not everyone will have the fiery passion for it that I have, but I’d find it hard to believe that someone would count the film’s many high points – in particular that initial, devastating bus accident – as some of the best moments in film this year. The only thing we have left to do is convince everyone we know to go and see it, so it can at least get the three-hour director’s cut it deserves on DVD. Go #TeamMargaret, and so forth!