Having acknowledged this fact, the shortened version of Margaret is kind of profound. It has uncommon insight into the cracks of its characters’ lives, exposing the difficulties of communicating and wanting to be heard. At the center is Anna Paquin, who gives a fervent performance as a privileged Manhattan high school student who is both confident in her every word and uncertain of her actions. Her character witnesses and plays a part in an accidental tragedy that leads to the death of another person. The remainder of the film deals with her guilt as she navigates through various relationships and social roles (daughter, student, citizen, sexually inexperienced teen, etc.). As she becomes more fixated on the truth of what happened concerning the accident, her own life becomes defined by the lies she tells herself and others.
Writer-director Lonergan (who also made the terrific 2000 film, You Can Count on Me) has an intimate approach to the material. He is after more than the guilt and pain of this young woman, and yet he smartly avoids the trap of allegory. Extending the film’s view onto Lisa’s mother, teachers, and other acquaintances, Lonergan creates a web of nuanced character portraits of people who misunderstand and are misunderstood. (It also helps when you have actors like Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, and Matthew Broderick on hand.) Margaret is a bared film to which you must make yourself vulnerable to reap its rewards. While the performances are uniformly excellent and the degree of the painful transactions at times unbearably high, the film lends depth to its perceptive screenplay and performances with an almost hypnotic sense of place. Lonergan’s camera scans up and down city streets and across window-lit rooftops, deriving poeticism from both the stillness and movement of the city. Nevertheless, the frequent shifts in focus cause Margaret to stumble as it unfolds unto other narrative territories. As I noted earlier, I haven’t seen the longer cut, but knowing of its existence compels me to wonder if the film’s problems of flow can be accounted for by its truncated nature. Nevertheless, in its theatrical incarnation, Margaret is an impassioned, if also frustratingly choppy work. (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) ***