Coy and confrontational, mature one moment and throwing a toddler-like temper tantrum the next, Anna Paquin’s Lisa Cohen is one of the more indelible portraits of late adolescence put on screen. Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed Margaret, deserves credit for the framework and dialogue he provides, but it’s Paquin who channels the roiling surges of that age with a startling combination of unpredictability and precision.
Into Lisa’s ordinarily fascinating life comes a tragedy: a bus accident she witnesses near her Manhattan apartment. I won’t spoil the details, except to say that Lisa isn’t entirely truthful in the police report she gives in the aftermath, a decision which grows like a cancer in her conscience as the film goes on.
Mark Ruffalo plays the bus driver, and he’s just one member in a stacked cast. Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon play two of Lisa’s teachers (Damon takes a Tom Ripley turn late in the film that’s terrifying), while Kieran Culkin plays a particularly skeevy classmate. Lonergan himself pops up on the phone every once in a while as her long-distance dad and J. Smith-Cameron plays her distracted, stage actress mom. Perhaps the second-best performance in the film comes from Jeannie Berlin as another woman connected to the accident whom Lisa befriends—and also exasperates.
All of these characters have more room to breathe in the three-hour-and-eight-minute extended cut that was released on DVD in 2012, a few months after a shorter version of the film received a curt theatrical release. The extended cut indulges in frequent cityscape shots and long moments of pedestrians passing each other down New York’s streets, emphasizing that Lisa, for all her unique qualities and experience, represents just one story among many. The most interesting formal element is Lonergan’s use of overlapping dialogue; more often than not, the chit chat of extras in a diner, say, or on the street drowns out the conversation being had by some of the main characters. Again, Lisa’s drama is seemingly diminished. Whatever teen narcissism she’s exhibiting is subverted by the film’s form.
And yet the movie’s sympathies are always fully with her. Margaret—the title comes from a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem recited by Broderick’s teacher—is a portrait of a young woman who’s beginning to realize that the world doesn’t always make sense (aside from the accident, the specter of 9/11 also looms over the narrative). Even though she wants to do the right thing, Lisa fails herself, and in the aftermath a series of supposedly honest adults fail her. Growing up will mean learning to live with the dissonance.