“Margaret” lingered on the shelf for six years despite the presence of several big stars and the intellectual DNA of Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”), one of the more promising directors in recent memory.
How long was the delay? Two of the producers, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, passed away before the film’s release.
Watching “Margaret,” on home video tomorrow, puts its extended shelf life in perspective. It’s a character study so full of sub plots, political debates that shockingly veer to the right and stunt casting it’s hard to know where the story wants to take us. You’ll have to wait a good 45 minutes before any sense of purpose settles in. And Lonergan’s camera work is purposefully amateurish at times, from self-indulgent sequences steeped in film school preciousness to awkward camera angles that reveal the filmmaker's omnipresence.
Holding it all together, albeit barely, is Anna Paquin. The “True Blood” star gives a defining portrait of adolescent angst. You’ll want to scream at her for putting everyone around her through so much pain, but Paquin lets us see the tiny agonies ripping at her soul.
Paquin stars as Lisa, an upper middle class teen who inadvertently causes a bus driver to ignore a red light and strike a pedestrian, killing the woman.
The incident haunts Lisa for weeks. She tells the police the traffic light was green, not red, sparing the driver from a possible jail sentence. Lisa seems well adjusted to the casual observer, but the combination of the accident and the standard adolescent pressures leave her permanently changed.
She starts behaving erratically, alienating her mother (J Smith-Cameron), embracing casual sex and seeking out the dead woman’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin) in a haphazard quest for inner peace.
Lisa also reaches out to her sympathetic teacher (Matt Damon), an oddball chum (Kieran Culkin) and even the bus driver himself (Mark Ruffalo) to set her emotional house in order.
Paquin’s performance is eerily spot on, a collection of minor facial gestures and more sweeping movements that delineate her pain. That makes it harder for her to push us away as easily as she does most of the people in her life.
Lonergan works delicately in tracing Lisa’s path to healing, but nearly everything else here is given a rude, crude introduction. Lisa engages in political shout-fests in her classroom, moments where she out-argues a fellow student who wallows in progressive moral equivalencies. Her mother starts a romance with a dashing European man (Jean Reno), a subplot with not one but two bizarre codas.
Inappropriate relationships are routinely introduced and then pushed aside.
The cameo casting – look, there’s Matthew Broderick in a microscopically small role! – end up being a distraction. You can almost hear the favors being called in.
The DVD “Margaret” clocks in at roughly two and a half hours, and to fulfill all the story elements fighting for breathing room would require another hour – if not more.