The Wonder That Is Margaret

Never, ever dismiss a grassroots movement (just ask Elizabeth Warren). Or the indignation of film critics, denied the chance to see what one of their clan has called “One of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders.”  The result has been a flurry of petitions, blog-wails and unkind aspersions directed at Fox Seachlight, from here at home and as far away as the U.K.

The fallout in Seattle has been that Kenneth Lonergan’s breathtaking Margaret got a press screening and a one-week run in one theatre, SIFF’s Uptown (backed up by no ads anywhere.)

Here’s where critics come in: with 3 ½ stars from the Seattle Times’ Moira McDonald and a strong pick-up review-let at the Weekly – and, no doubt, a buzz in every cranny of Scarecrow Video – Margaret’s healthy weekend grosses have earned it a second week, through February 9th.

The tidy among us should probably know that Margaret is almost as gloriously unruly as Anna Paquin’s Lisa herself, and that we will be following her at almost eye level for 149 minutes, as Pacquin virtually irradiates the screen.

Lisa’s divorced mother Jane (J. Smith-Cameron, simply superb) is a successful New York theatre actress and Lisa is at home in Jane’s close-knit, seductively unstable scene, and with her deeply ironic private school classmates.

Her screenwriter-father (played by Lonergan), now lives in California with a new lady, but at least makes an attempt at being in his kids’ lives. Even living with a younger brother hasn’t altered Lisa’s world view that compromise in any form is as contemptible as anyone who suggests it.  Ah yes, total idealism.

So nothing has remotely prepared her for a real-life bloody tragedy, when her flirtatiousness distracts a bus driver enough to run over a pedestrian. Slowly, then with mounting despair (and volume), Lisa sets about to do the right thing.

Which right thing?  That answer gets more muddled with each new character Lisa drags to the stage of her personal mini-opera: her mother, the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), the victim’s closest friend (a scathingly skeptical Jeannie Berlin), the police, the MTA, potential heirs, at least two lawyers, and a concerned English teacher at Lisa’s private school (Matt Damon.)

                                         

None of them will emerge unscathed, Lisa most of all.  By turns she becomes damaging, hotly destructive, sexually predatory, and genuinely dangerous to everyone around her, until with her every good intention in ruins, she finally faces her own part in the tragedy. (Interestingly enough, at an opera, the irresistibly gorgeous Tales of Hoffman.)

So, is it a cinematic wonder?  Damn straight, considering that Lonergan’s skills are deeper, broader and more nuanced than they were when he made You Can Count On Me, his unforgettable writing-directing debut 8 years ago. He seems to be an actor’s director, since every one in Margaret’s huge cast is miraculously good, and his intimate New York canvas includes the theatre and its denizens; the vagaries of the city’s private schools; teenage, both general and specific; opera and its followers, and post 9/11 America as viewed from abroad.

Lonergan’s ear may have become even more sharp: for the hearty, hollow phone chat of divorced fathers; for the escalating state of war between mothers and 17-year old daughters and, especially, for panic-inducing exchanges between teenagers:

She:  “Did any of that get inside me?”

He:    “It’s okay. . .Odds are overwhelming that it’s okay.”

But an ear is nothing without a soul, even in its excesses and our own struggle to put up with Lisa’s wicked stubbornness, Margaret is humane to a humbling degree.  (Who else but someone with Lonergan’s depths of understanding could even conceive of a positive mini-epic with teenagers at its heart?)

It is noticeably dated.  A classroom donnybrook, as a discussion spills over into the bigotry that a fellow student, of Syrian descent, has felt first-hand, in the wake of 9/11 is one of many reminders that Margaret was made when that event was still raw.

You ’ll notice that Matt Damon is in Bourne fighting trim and the hilarious Matthew Broderick, his teaching colleague, is positively coltish.  But the bus accident’s gory chaos and pandemonium around it is the most shocking reminder of that date, as much now as when it was shot.

The film’s exact time of 149 minutes was achieved by Thelma Schoonmaker (who by now should simply be called Legendary Editor.)  She arrived when  Martin Scorsese stepped in to help with the impasse between Lonergan and Fox Searchlight, who having watched their picture grow beyond its 2-hour mark, finally agreed to 150 minutes and not a second more.  Bless them all.