The Mysteries of Margaret

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Awards season brings out a lot of strange and somewhat amusing behavior in film critics, but I have to admit the odd delayed reaction to Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret had me somewhat mystified, so I’ve decided to write about it.

I remember first hearing about this movie years ago, maybe even when Lonergan started putting together an impressive cast that included Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick and others. Lonergan wasn’t a slouch, having already received two Oscar nominations for his writing, the first one for 2000’s You Can Count on Me, which also received a nomination for Laura Linney.

The movie filmed in New York City in 2005, but I then didn’t hear anything for a long time. In fact, every once in a while, I’d be in the room with one of the actors in the movie and they’d be asked about the movie and they shrugged their shoulders, not knowing any more than anyone who read the trades.

So what happened?

Apparently, there were legal issues with the film after Lonergan turned in a 3-hour cut, which went against his initial contract with the distributor, Fox Searchlight. The situation is probably a lot more complicated than that, but the film got stuck in legal wrangling for a number of years. Sadly, two of the film’s producers, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, passed away while all of that was going on.

Once the problems were seemingly resolved, Fox Searchlight finally set a release date of September 30, but it never felt like it was a movie they were ever going to fully get behind, especially when they didn’t bring it to the Toronto Film Festival weeks earlier. In fact, I was never even invited to a press screening and only heard that there were some through colleagues, which in itself was kind of weird. I figured if the movie was any good–and trust me, when a movie is shelved that long, you have your doubts–I’d get a chance to see the movie down the line. Anyway, the movie came out in a couple theaters and was gone by late October, having wracked up an unimpressive $47 thousand. Searchlight probably didn’t care because by then they were already onto promoting their other movies. Story over, right?

Wrong.

I first started hearing rumblings of something going on with Margaret in the critical community when sites started reporting certain parties were pushing Searchlight to send out awards screeners of the movie to voting groups and not just the critics, since they felt the movie was an overlooked classic that warranted more recognition despite the studio’s lack of interest in promoting it. The next time I knew something was going on was when the New York Film Critics Online, one of the groups I’m in that give out awards each year, had quite a bit of support for a number of the performances in the movie. And the final kicker was the recent Village Voice Film Poll where Margaret placed seventh even though it had a much lower profile than some of the other movies, many of which had played festivals.

Even though the movie was clearly getting support from my fellow critics, I didn’t really take it too seriously, for a couple reasons you need to understand: a.) I don’t trust critics, even those who are my best friends, because every critic has their own personal tastes and biases which always come into play while reviewing; b.) The Village Voice critics are generally snobs who won’t nominate a good movie if it’s released by a studio, has any sort of cohesive story or appeal to mainstream audiences. c.) Critics definitely have a political reason for them to get behind Lonergan’s movie, because its long delays and legal battles come down to a filmmaker trying to get behind his artistic vision and being hit with legalities preventing it.

Even so, when Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere wrote his own thoughts about the movie and mentioned it would be reopening at New York’s Cinema Village, it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up, and I got a ticket for the first screening on Friday, so I could see for myself what all the hub-bub was about.

So what’s the movie about?

Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, a 17-year-old student who witnesses a bus accident, which in fact, she may have caused by distracting the driver (played by Mark Ruffalo, who co-starred in Lonergan’s earlier film) so that he runs a red light and kills a pedestrian (played by Allison Janney, no less). Lisa’s mother Joan (J. Cameron Smith, also from You Can Count on Me) is a stage actress who has just met a new man named Ramon (Jean Reno), but the relationship between mother and daughter has been deeply fractured even before Lisa witnessing the accident. Eventually, Lisa meets a friend of the woman killed in the bus accident, played by Jeannie Berlin, and they band together to try to get the bus driver to admit his guilt. There are a couple other storylines and subplots involving teachers played by Matts Damon and Broderick, but for the most part, the film revolves around Lisa or her mother.

Without writing a full review, here are a couple thoughts we had after seeing the movie:

1. There’s no one named Margaret in the entire movie.

2. Anna Paquin’s performance is absolutely stunning, easily some of her best work and just as worthy of awards as any of the other actresses who have been discussed over the last few months. She was 23 when she shot the movie, which makes it believable her character is 17 and in some ways, we can see this role as being what gave her the courage to take on playing Sookie on “True Blood.”

3. Everyone looks really young in the movie, including Matt Damon, who is now playing fathers in movies, and Matthew Broderick, who has allowed his hair to grow grey. It’s really weird seeing them look so young when we’ve seen them in recent movies which just drives home the point the movie’s been sitting on the shelf for years.

4. How long ago the film was shot is made more obvious by two other specific things: When we see a movie theater, it has Flight Plan, Serenity and Roll Bounce on the marquee, all three of which were in theaters in late September 2005. The other major one is that Lincoln Center hadn’t even STARTED going through all of the major renovations that made it almost impossible to navigate for years.

5. There are a lot of absolute truisms to the film in terms of New York City, the main one being that MTA bus drivers are rather reckless and they actually often run red lights. I’ve seen it many times with my own two eyes. There’s also a moment when Lisa calls out a police officer for going easy on the bus driver because he’s white.

6. The way Lonergan handles Lisa’s sexuality, while it seems somewhat tangential, feels very real, whether it’s how she loses her virginity to a classmate played by Kieran Culkin or her hitting on her teacher, played by Matt Damon.

7. The film is kind of meandering and not all of it seems necessary to the overall story. All of the stuff with Lisa’s mother and her boyfriend Ramon (Played by Jean Reno) doesn’t really add much, and some of Lisa’s sexual dalliances don’t seem to serve much purpose. And yet, if the movie was just about the case against the bus driver it wouldn’t be nearly as good or interesting. Lonergan also has the propensity for long tracking shots of Paquin walking through New York. Very artistic but do nothing for the story at all.

8. The movie is very erratic in its direction and a lot of that goes back to Lonergan being way too precious about his script and some of the unnecessary storylines, but you do have to give him credit for the performances he gets out of his cast and some of the moments that do work. I just wish it was a bit more consistent.

9. There’s a solid movie in there somewhere and if it wasn’t a ridiculous two and a half hours long, it may have been more focused and therefore, more effective.

10. Margaret should have played at festivals like Toronto and Telluride because it would have been the perfect way to get advance support from critics that could have helped the movie’s theatrical release as well as its award chances. It’s a flawed movie that has enough enjoyable moments that there are audiences who would be able to enjoy and relate to aspects of it, especially in New York. Here’s hoping that some of that audience seek out the film on DVD or check out its current rerelease in New York City.

We expect that Margaret will be on DVD fairly soon, but if you get a chance to see it in theaters, you’ll find that it’s a hidden gem, albeit a flawed one.