Here’s a film that should be required viewing for screenwriters because of how hauntingly heart-felt and emotionally bare this dialogue-heavy screenplay is, punctuated by odd moments of startling realism, and for angsty young people who feel both a lack of meaning and direction in their personal lives, which is exacerbated by the meaningless of an overly bureaucratic form our society takes.
This makes up the appropriately bulky and ambituous drama Margaret, an intelligently and delicately written coming-of-age film about eighteen year old Lisa (Anna Paquin) and how a horrible accident she witnesses changes the course of her development into adulthood.
Even when the dialogue seems to be written too intellectually, especially in the class conversation scenes with Lisa and her peers, it still works for such a striking effect, in particular when Lisa’s literature teacher (Matthew Broderick) shuts a student down for trying to argue his own subjective opinion on one of Shakespeare’s works – he’s just like Mr McAllister from Election.
Though other scenes wildly contrast. Soon after the accident, when Lisa invites a suave and confident classmate (Rory Culkin) over to take away her virginity, with this film’s take on the ‘disappointing first time’ sex scene astonishingly realistic (err, not that I can relate). Lisa is shown to be defiantly aloof about the accident, so that she can purge herself of the tragedy. Although that seems to work, her guilt then takes over, resulting in her trying to reopen the case against the bus driver’s negligent actions. From here, the film shifts from an existential quandary to focus on this social activism.
This makes this one of the better coming-of-age films out there – instead of the usual horniness and solipsism and stale sentimentality that permeates this sub-genre, Margaret takes a far more thoughtful and intelligent perspective, showing that growing up is to do with widening your awareness of others, not limiting it. And Lisa does that, not just with a stranger, but with her mother.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has crafted an array of believable varying characters and placed them within interesting situations that brings out such revealing, dynamic, and sometimes wonderfully long-winded conversations, discussions, and arguments. He won the Best Original screenplay for Manchester by the Sea, but he demonstrated a stronger story of responsibility with more purposefulness and urgency in his screenplay here (which totalled 368 pages in its first draft).
Filmed in New York just a few years after 9/11, the attacks clearly feel prevalent in the underlying mood – Margaret gets at its most experimental when it features shots of boats, vehicles, pedestrians, or even flying planes as the dialogue plays over underneath. Lonergan is instilling this personal story a much wider scope, unveiling it as one story of a world of many. The opening credits showing the many, many pedestrians (unsuspectingly filmed) before honing in on the one and her life for three hours.
Marred by post-production complications which lasted for years as Fox Searchlight and producer Gary Gilbert demanded a cut less than two and a half hours long, Margaret was filmed in 2005, intended for a 2007 release, and deemed unreleasable in 2009 due to on-going lawsuits, it was eventually released into cinemas (in a very limited release) in 2011 with a running-time of 150 minutes.
Luckily, most of his home video releases are the extended cut that Lonergan initially created, at just shy of three hours. And it’s an easy three hours to get swept up in. Despite what seems like a small story, it’s the gaps and the bulkiness between plot-points that add to the film’s emotional gravitas.