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Strictly speaking, Margaret was never supposed to be a film of this decade. Principal photography began back in 2005 but ballooning budgets, disagreements between the studio and director Kenneth Lonergan over cuts, and multiple lawsuits had many wondering if it would ever see the light of day at all. By the time it received an extremely limited theatrical release in 2011, lead Anna Paquin was three seasons into her True Blood reinvention as an actual adult, and what was intended as a more immediate exploration of the emotions roiled up by the tragedy of 9/11 became a cinematic curio, sampled by critics and rubberneckers alike and mostly discarded as the year drew to its close, apart from a few “#TeamMargaret” diehards on Movie Twitter. While the critics may have been looking for a masterpiece and the rubberneckers hoping for a disaster, Margaret didn’t quite turn out to be either. What it is is messy, in the best possible sense — and the cult around the film, in particular the director’s cut that adds a half hour to the already bloated 150-minute runtime, has grown.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: there is nobody named Margaret in the movie. The title is a reference to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “Spring and Fall” which opens with the line “Margaret, are you grieving?” and is read in the film by Matthew Broderick, who plays the teacher of the lead character, Lisa, a high schooler on the Upper West Side who is the inadvertent cause of a bus accident that kills a pedestrian. The poem and the film are about youth’s first reckoning with death and a realization of the world’s existence beyond themselves; when Lonergan wrote and conceived of the film, emotions over 9/11 were raw and even many years on it has a nervy energy, a sense that at any minute it might run off the rails. It unfolds in an operatic register in a way that risks turning off many viewers. But this is true to the film’s characters who may be “small” people but don’t live small lives, at least not to them. This is reflected in the film’s sound design, which is Altman-esque: the conversations of passersby are constantly muddying the main soundtrack, imbuing the city with a sense of liveliness that many other films would take as a given. And like Altman at his best, this is a generous film (perhaps to a fault), allowing every character, even the most minor ones, a voice and depth. The camera is constantly lingering on the New York City skyline, panning across gleaming buildings and slow motion citizens, as if to capture it all before any of the rest disappears. There’s something oddly refreshing about watching Lonergan spread his cinematic paint everywhere, even if it isn’t always conventionally satisfying.
It’s also refreshing to see a film grapple so fully with a young woman’s tumultuous coming of age. Lisa is a melodramatic, selfish person in the way most teenagers are melodramatic and selfish, and the realism of her character may be unpleasantly confrontational for some viewers; it can be difficult at times to watch how she manipulates and tortures those around her. The film’s true trajectory reveals itself as Lisa’s simultaneous wish to become a good person and realization of how often the world makes that challenging for adults. We never hear Lisa’s thoughts on the Hopkins poem; the camera cuts right after Broderick speaks her name. And anyway, how she feels about it will likely evolve. It’s part of growing up. Margaret, which experienced its own pains to get to the screen, knows that above all and is all the more rewarding for it.