Though the case gives the film a narrative through-line and a strong moral question, one of the key points about Margaret is that it isn’t about the case—if it were, it would be enormously frustrating and indulgent. The accident and its fallout just serve as the engine for an epic coming-of-age story, which accounts for why Lonergan takes a full hour between the accident and Lisa’s first steps toward setting the record straight. In that stretch of time, she’s seen furiously debating classmates over 9/11 and Israeli-Palestine relations, recklessly testing her sexual powers by making a pass at her math teacher (Matt Damon), and thwarting her closest friend’s affections for a pot dealer. In short, Lisa is finding herself, which Lonergan treats as a volatile, dangerous process for anyone who crosses her path. She’s like an emotional IED, whose detonation leaves no shortage of collateral damage.

This raises another key point about Margaret: Teenagers are often full of shit. That George Bernard Shaw quote above, cited partially in the film, applies to Lisa’s misadventures after the accident. She does indeed treat the case as a “moral gymnasium” without much sensitivity toward the people whom its outcome affects. In her uglier moments, she casts herself as the heroine in this melodrama, and while her feelings of responsibility and outrage are completely authentic, her quest for truth steamrolls over other considerations. She’s cruel to her mother. She’s callous to her friend. She’s pompous and condescending to the detective in charge of the case. And she uses her body to manipulate people, sometimes just for sport. Loving Margaret means recognizing and accepting that Lisa is a work in progress who makes mistakes—sometimes grievous, outrageous ones—on the road to maturity. Lonergan tries to bottle her combustible spirit, but even at 188 minutes, he properly lets some of the mess stay messy.


At the same time, Margaret is about the idealism of youth being sullied by the corruptions of adulthood. Getting some justice for the victim—if that’s even possible—sends Lisa through a legal system that’s compromised and woefully inadequate to the task. Dollar figures mean nothing to her, since she doesn’t stand to make a dime on the civil case, and it’s odd that money could stand in for justice, especially when the victim’s hated relatives will ultimately benefit. There’s some wisdom to her mother’s initial advice to lie to the police—and no doubt personal experience, too, since she’s a parent who relies on steady acting jobs to support her own family—but it’s nonetheless inherently corrupt, which gives Lisa’s resentment a legitimate source. Being an adult, she discovers, is about banal, practical things like making money and holding onto your social station, and higher ideals can often wither in the face of that.

Margaret’s extended cut has a more operatic quality than the theatrical version—again, those who outright hated it the first time will likely be more turned off now—and it brings all the relationships into proper balance, especially Lisa’s contentious, hurtful but ultimately powerful bond with her mother. The one consequence is that Lisa’s relationship with Emily—whom Berlin plays with a prickly ferocity that suggests Lisa in middle age—gets less emphasis, but that’s only proper, because their alliance has no life beyond the case, whereas Joan will always be Lisa’s mother. And without getting into spoiler territory, the third-act bombshell that comes out of nowhere in the theatrical version is much more carefully wrought in the long cut. The short cut rushes to the end, like a writer squeezing text into the bottom corner of the last page of a notebook. Now the final scene hits with titanic force.


The Margaret cult may seem, from the outside, like a handful of critics posturing behind a rightful outcast, or marinating in their own minor triumph. But it’s truly a major piece of work, ambitious and prismatic, and teeming with emotion. The angles into it are endless—it happens to be, among other things, a vivid barometer for how the country was feeling after 9/11—and even its elisions (though fewer now) seem like mysteries worth solving. #Teammargaret may have begun as a provincial cause, prodding the studio to unhand some screeners for awards consideration, but Margaret is everyone’s movie now. And it’s a corker.

Coming Up: 
August 16: Hot Rod
September 6: Twelve Monkeys
September 27: Bound