Post-Trauma Life in “Margaret” (Missed Movies)

How you react to Margaret (2011) may depend on whether or not you enjoy imperfect movies that are challenging and ambitious. I spent much of the movie wondering where it was going to go as it continuously surprised me. While at times the movie made me uncomfortable with all of its flawed characters, I ultimately realized that I will be thinking about this one for a long time.

Margaret centers around Lisa Cohen, a teenager played by Anna Paquin, who witnesses and is indirectly partly responsible for a bus accident that kills a woman who dies in Lisa’s arms. Lisa is severely affected by the accident, beginning with her decision about whether or not she should tell the police that the bus driver was distracted and ran a red light. From there, the teen alternates between struggling with her decisions and acting out in various ways. Her parents are divorced, and her actress mother is distracted by a play and dating while her father is far away. Her teachers at school — including ones played by Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick — have their own flaws, as does everyone in the movie. Those flaws help make Margaret portray the messiness of real life.

Margaret has a number of stars in non-starring roles. In addition to Damon and Broderick, Jean Reno plays the love interest of Lisa’s mother and Mark Ruffalo plays the bus driver. J. Smith-Cameron plays Lisa’s mother.

The movie, directed by Ken Lonergan, was actually made in 2005 and scheduled for release in 2007 but it only finally made it to a limited number of theaters in 2011 and was released on DVD last year. A number of issues contributed to the long delay, including that Lonergan reportedly struggled with editing the movie as the studio wanted him to cut his nearly three-hour movie to under 150 minutes, leading to lawsuits. Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker were called in to create an edit, and although Lonergan approved their edit, his longer version is available on the new Blu-ray/DVD release. I watched the edited version on HBO. This “short” 150-minute version had a number of long lingering shots that some may or may not like, but I am curious about the longer one. David Edelstein at NPR has written how he thought the short version was flawed but he loved the extended cut.

Others have noted that what makes the 2005 shooting interesting is that it places the making of the film and the film’s setting nearer to 9/11. Not only do Lisa and her classmates debate terrorism, the movie touches on post 9/11 themes like blame, guilt, and how one act can touch so many people. Paquin, who played a young girl in 2002’s 25th Hour (one of the best movies that featured 9/11’s effects) and is in True Blood, does an excellent job.

Paquin plays someone we completely empathize with at the beginning but who is an annoying teenager at times. But that is part of the point, as Lonergan captures how we feel things more passionately as teenagers before we become cynical adults. If you understand why someone acts the way they do, can you still empathize with them even when they are less than perfect? That is one of the questions of civilization, and Lonergan asks us to ask ourselves that question as he illustrates how humans fail to connect with each other.

Conclusion? Not everyone will like Margaret. But if you are in the mood for a challenging movie raising moral, ethical, and human issues, you might enjoy this one. Or at least you will be thinking about it for a long time and looking up Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall,” about a young girl encountering death, to help you figure out why a movie named “Margaret” does not have anyone with that name.

Other Reviews Because Why Should You Trust Me?: The split between critics (71%) and audience members (49%) on Rotten Tomatoes shows how viewers may be divided between loving and hating Margaret. Peter Travers at Rolling Stone gives Margaret three and half out of four stars, acknowledging its flaws while concluding it is a “film of rare beauty and shocking gravity.” By contrast, Amy Curtis at We Got This Covered calls Margaret “pointless” and disorganized.

{Missed Movies is our continuing series on good films you might have missed because they did not receive the recognition they deserved when released.}

What did you think of Margaret? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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