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'Margaret': The Tortured Journey Of A Girl, On Screen

Jul 12, 2012
Originally published on July 13, 2012 12:56 pm

"A fiasco with a great first half" is what I called Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret when it was dumped in one New York theater last fall, five years after it was shot, amid a legal battle between Lonergan and a producer.

I'm a huge fan of Lonergan's plays and his first film, You Can Count on Me, but Margaret's second half was so disjointed I couldn't get behind it. But a handful of other critics did, and fans started a Twitter campaign — a small but significant groundswell enabling Lonergan to make a three-hour cut for DVD. That extended cut is as close to a masterpiece as any American film in a decade.

The protagonist is a Manhattan teenager named Lisa, played bravely, marvelously by Anna Paquin. In her first scene, she admits to cheating on a test to a too-indulgent private school teacher played by Matt Damon. She's a blase relativist — there's no right or wrong.

Then comes a turning point. She distracts a bus driver whose cowboy hat she likes, he runs a red light, a woman is hit — a wildly shocking accident that ends with Lisa holding the dying woman, drenched in blood. I've never seen anything like it, and hope never to again.

Its impact lingers through the film, of course, though in the next few days Lisa barely talks about it. She goes to a party. She calls an ironic hipster played by Kieran Culkin and asks him to take her virginity, blowing off a close friend who adores her.

She won't discuss what happened with her single mother, an actress — played by Lonergan's wife, J. Smith-Cameron — who's about to open in an Off Broadway play. Her L.A.-based father, played by Lonergan, is friendly but superficial — useless.

Then, suddenly, more than an hour into the film, Lisa confronts the enormity of the accident, and how she lied to protect the bus driver, played by Mark Ruffalo. She journeys to the distant reaches of Brooklyn, surprising him and his wife.

In their conversation, you can hear the urgency of Paquin's Lisa, her desperate attempt to communicate the intensity of her feelings — to the point where other characters accuse her of overdramatizing. But Lonergan's point is how earth-shattering this is, and how teenagers feel the world more deeply than grown-ups with defenses in place. When Lisa reaches out to a friend of the woman killed, the older woman's cynicism butts up against the teenager's passionate conviction in a way that breaks your heart.

Lonergan's larger theme is that no one fully connects, and in the extended cut it's underlined perfectly by a subplot in which Lisa's mother is courted by a Colombian businessman (Jean Reno) who can't get on her wavelength.

Margaret is named for a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about a young girl suddenly perceiving death. Lonergan gives you that perspective — Lisa's — but his canvas is wider. He lingers on high-rises, passersby, planes overhead that evoke the trauma of Sept. 11.

I still think these shots call too much attention to themselves — all these people with their own lives! — but they have an impact. Margaret needs the sprawl. It's counterintuitive, but a longer movie can feel shorter if its scenes are properly set up. In the extended cut, Lonergan has charted the torturous emotional journey of a modern girl as no one has on screen.

When you buy Margaret, you'll find that extended cut packaged with a Blu-ray of the theatrical version. Use that as a coaster. Really. I only wish the extended cut could play in theaters across the country. The occasion is that momentous. (Recommended)

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

In the mid-'90s Kenneth Lonergan received enormous acclaim for his play "This is Our Youth" and in 2000 for his film, "You Can Count on Me." His second film, "Margaret," starring Anna Paquin, was a long time in coming and had only a brief life in theaters. Now the theatrical release is available on Blu-ray along with a longer DVD cut. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: A fiasco with a great first half is what I called Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" when it was dumped in one New York theater last fall, five years after it was shot, amid a legal battle between Lonergan and a producer. I'm a huge fan of Lonergan's plays and his first film, "You Can Count on Me," but "Margaret's" second half was so disjointed I couldn't get behind it.

But a handful of other critics did, and fans started a Twitter campaign - a small but significant groundswell enabling Lonergan to make a three-hour cut for DVD. That extended cut is as close to a masterpiece as any American film in a decade.

The protagonist is a Manhattan teenager named Lisa, played bravely, marvelously, by Anna Paquin. In her first scene, she admits to cheating on a test to a too-indulgent private school teacher played by Matt Damon. She's a blase relativist - there's no right or wrong.

Then comes a turning point. She distracts a bus driver whose cowboy hat she likes. He runs a red light, a woman is hit - a wildly shocking accident that ends with Lisa holding the dying woman, drenched in blood. I've never seen anything like it, and hope never to again.

Its impact lingers through the film, of course, though in the next few days Lisa barely talks about it. She goes to a party. She calls an ironic hipster played by Kieran Culkin and asks him to take her virginity, blowing off a close friend who adores her.

She won't discuss what happened with her single mother, an actress - played by Lonergan's wife, J. Smith-Cameron - who's about to open in an off-Broadway play. Her father in L.A., played by Lonergan, is friendly but superficial - useless.

Then suddenly, more than an hour into the film, Lisa confronts the enormity of the accident, and how she lied to protect the bus driver, played by Mark Ruffalo. She journeys to the distant reaches of Brooklyn, surprising him and his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARGARET")

ANNA PAQUIN: (as Lisa) I'm not trying to get you in trouble.

MARK RUFFALO: (as Maretti) I know you're not 'cause you can't, 'cause I didn't do anything wrong. All right? There was no criminality found. That's it. The report is, you know, final. That's it.

PAQUIN: (as Lisa) So you're just going to leave it.

RUFFALO: (as Maretti) I'm going to leave it because that's all that it was. If something else would've happened, then I'd take that to whatever that was, OK? It was tragic. It's a tragedy, but there's only a certain speed that those brakes can react, OK? That's the physical limitation of the machine. I don't know what else to tell you. It's shocking; it was a shock. But you can't bring her back. You cannot bring her back.

PAQUIN: (as Lisa) I'm not talking about bringing her back. I'm talking about telling the accident investigators what really happened.

RUFFALO: (as Maretti) But you already talked to them.

PAQUIN: (as Lisa) I know that, but I lied.

RUFFALO: (as Maretti) You lied.

PAQUIN: (as Lisa) Yes. And I can understand if you don't want to get in any trouble, but I can't...

RUFFALO: (as Maretti) So then why didn't you say that right then?

PAQUIN: (as Lisa) Because when they were asking me what happened, it seemed like you were kind of looking at me - like we were saying to each other, let's not say anything about what happened.

RUFFALO: (as Maretti) OK, all right. Now I really don't know what you're talking about.

PAQUIN: (as Lisa) I can't prove that you were doing that.

RUFFALO: (as Maretti) OK, OK. Did I - what? Did I say something to you? Did I - did I - did I threaten you in any way?

PAQUIN: (as Lisa) No. And I'm not blaming you for any of this. All I'm saying is that I didn't really tell the cops what happened, and I didn't want to go back without having spoken to you first.

RUFFALO: (as Maretti) But you told them what you saw. You told them what you saw, and so did I. I mean, I'm the one driving the bus. I'm the one behind the wheel.

PAQUIN: (as Lisa) All right. Have it your way.

RUFFALO: (as Maretti) No. You know what? Leave it alone. What do you - you want to ruin my life? Start talking about looks, and you waved at me, and I had my cowboy hat on? Go ahead, but you're going to go home, and you're going to do your homework - and I'm going to lose my job. And who's going to take care of my family - you?

EDELSTEIN: You can hear the urgency of Paquin's Lisa; her desperate attempt to communicate the intensity of her feelings, to the point where other characters accuse her of over-dramatizing. But Lonergan's point is how earth-shattering this is; and how teenagers feel the world more deeply than grown-ups with defenses in place. When Lisa reaches out to a friend of the woman killed - played by Jeannie Berlin - the older woman's cynicism butts up against the teenager's passionate conviction in a way that breaks your heart.

Lonergan's larger theme is that no one fully connects with anyone else. And in the extended cut, it's underlined perfectly by a subplot in which Lisa's mother is courted by a Colombian businessman - played by Jean Reno - who can't get on her wavelength.

"Margaret" is named for a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about a young girl suddenly perceiving death. Lonergan gives you that perspective - Lisa's. But his canvas is wider. He lingers on high-rises, passersby, planes overhead that evoke the trauma of 9/11. I still think these shots call too much attention to themselves - all these people with their own lives. But they have an impact. "Margaret" needs the sprawl. It's counterintuitive, but a longer movie can feel shorter if its scenes are properly set up. In the extended cut, Lonergan has charted the torturous emotional journey of a modern gir,l as no one has on screen.

When you buy "Margaret," you'll find that extended cut packaged with a Blu-ray of the theatrical version. Use that as a coaster. Really. I only wish the extended cut could play in theaters across the country. The occasion is that momentous.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. The two disc set of "Margaret" includes the theatrical version, on Blu-ray; and the extended cut, on DVD. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.