The story of how 2011′s Margaret was made and eventually released may make a more compelling tale than the theatrical version. The film was shot in 2005 (as evinced by the theater marquees), but then entered into a lengthy editing process to which director Kenneth Lonergan found it nearly impossible to get the film into manageable shape. He could have his cut up to 150 minutes, but reports have the film running as long as (and possibly over) four hours. In the process, two of the film’s producers (Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella) passed away, and film has been stamped with a 2008 copyright, and it now runs a choppy 149 minutes. In this version it’s a mess, but a fascinating one. Perhaps if the longer cut emerges we’ll know for sure if it just needed to be long, or if the film got away from Lonergan in a classic example of a “sophomore slump.”

The Players:

The Plot:

Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a young girl whose distracting behavior unintentionally kills a passerby (Alison Janney). Her mother (Smith-Cameron) is divorced and a successful stage actress, her father (Lonergan) lives in Santa Monica with his new wife. After the accident the film is divided by Lisa’s involvement with the dead woman’s best friend Emily (Berlin), and her growing pains as an adolescent. She looks to lose her virginity with playboy Paul (Kieran Culkin) and eventually targets a young teacher (Damon) with her affections. But her guilt about the incident forces her to try to punish the bus driver (Ruffalo).

The Bad:

  • The Editing: It’s hard to say if whole scenes are lifted or if the film was shortened by a thousand little cuts. In its current form, Margaret features the sort of editing choices that are usually the results of poor film-making. From sequences that end abruptly to non-existent transitions into the next scene to cutaways to exteriors that are usually done to bridge takes (with no coverage), it’s hard to watch some sections and not feel like the pacing is askew, and these choices reflect poorly on the filmmaker. Whether they were done to get the film to manageable length or because of poor execution it’s hard to say, but in the released cut it looks like amateur hour.
  • The Pacing: The film is divided into two narratives as it goes further, Lisa’s home and sex life, and her inserting herself into the life of Emily as she tries to revise the story she told to the cops at the time of the accident.  Both narratives are compelling and both have great scenes – Berlin gets a great moment to dress down Lisa for her childish poetic reading of a death – but the connective tissue between the two seems non-existent. It’s like flipping between two TV shows and trying to watch both at the same time. Perhaps that’s why when the film wraps up it feels like there’s no energy to that conclusion. You can see how the pieces are there to make some of those moments powerful or meaningful, but when Lisa finally explodes it doesn’t seem to have the weight of its intentions. Margaret is filled with highs, but the air is missing to make it whole.
  • Anna Paquin: The actress has a number of great moments, but in the current version, she misses her mark every once in a while.

The Good:

  • What Lonergan’s After: At the time, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan was making a film about New York, and obviously a post-9/11 New York. From classroom discussion (all great scenes) to the themes of the film, it’s definitely about denial and wrongheadedness in the face of great tragedy, along with a youth’s desire to insert themselves into a drama to feel. On top of that Lonergan is one of the great writers of dialogue, and so sequence after sequence has great moments and writing (even for the director himself). And he gets the fractured nature of Margaret herself, drawn to do bad things, not turned on by the nice guy, hating her mother for a myriad of reasons, and oh does he nail the sort of pretentious intellectualism of a young well educated person.
  • When the film digresses: J. Smith-Cameron’s character Joan is romanced by Jean Reno’s Ramon, and she gets a great moment in the bathroom, and there’s a great scene where Ramon has dinner with a table full of women and gets into a huge fight about Palestine. There are lots of great character moments, but often they feel isolated. All of the classroom scenes are also excellent, and Lonergan gets the voices of the children and their verbal fights pitch perfect.

Overall:

It’s hard to hurdle some of the faults of the movie, and it’s hard to know if the film never came together, or if it was ruined by the need to get the film down to a manageable length. Regardless, Margaret is a fascinating experience filled with great scenes next to bad ones, and great moments that are sometimes hurt by horrible editing decisions. That may not be satisfying for the casual filmgoer, but for the cineaste it’s a must-see.  The film is hitting two screens in New York and Los Angeles September 29, and it’s unknown if it will expand after that.

Rating: 7/10

Trailer: