It’s impossible to talk about some films, like Margaret, without talking about the stories behind them. The second film by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, who debuted with the stunningly assured and movingly realized You Can Count On Me in 2000, Margaret was first set to debut in 2006. Then it didn’t, and as the years passed, rumors started to surface of a director who could not assemble a final cut. In time, rumors turned into lawsuits and talk began that Margaret would never see the light of day in any form. In 2009, a Los Angeles Times article speculated “[i]f more time passes, what was once a contemporary drama could soon become a period piece.”
Watching Margaret, now receiving a quiet release years later, that statement feels like prophecy. That’s partly because star Anna Paquin would almost certainly have difficulty plausibly passing as a 17-year-old these days, but has more to do with a heated classroom scene in which her character talks about objecting to the current president and means George W. Bush, not Obama. It’s a jarring reminder that even the passage of a few years can make a film seem like it belongs to another era, and not just because the references change. The air in Margaret is thick with the atmosphere of the ’00s, and the unsettling mournfulness, guilt, anger, and recrimination that characterized life in the years after 9/11.
As the heroine of his story of life in conflicting times, Lonergan casts a character in the grips of emotions she can feel but not process. Paquin plays a young woman filled with passion she can’t quite articulate and frustration she can only translate into anger. Alternately endearing and enraging, Paquin’s work might be remembered as one of the great depictions of what it feels like to be a teen if the film around her had worked out better. But, despite a wrenching opening that saddles Paquin’s character with more guilt than most anyone could bear, much less a less-than-steady-on-her-feet teen, the film lets some great performances and compelling moments drift in a sea of shapelessness.
As the film opens, Paquin seemingly has little to worry about beyond troubles in a geometry class presided over by Matt Damon—with whom she conducts a muted flirtation—and the attentions of a boy who may want to be more than friends. Then, in search of a cowboy hat for a trip out West, she sees what she’s looking for atop the head of a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), and runs alongside his bus trying to get his attention. She succeeds too well, and Ruffalo drives through a red light and over a woman (Allison Janney) who dies in Paquin’s arms. After fudging her report to the police to protect Ruffalo, Paquin finds herself haunted by the death and her own role in it, feelings that turn toxic as they spill over into her relationships with her classmates and her mother (Lonergan’s wife J. Smith-Cameron) and lead her to seek out Janney’s friend (Jeannie Berlin, in her first film role in more than 20 years).
What works about Margaret—the performances, chunks of scenes strung together into powerful passages—makes what doesn’t work about Margaret all the more frustrating. Namely, Margaret. The film that Lonergan couldn’t finish arrives as a film that doesn’t feel finished. A paceless, shapeless, lurching thing, Margaret lingers over some scenes longer than feels necessary, then smash-cuts past seemingly crucial moments. Paquin’s relationship with Smith-Cameron (who’s also quite good), looks affectionate in one scene and violently contentious the next, playing less like a complicated mother/daughter dynamic than the interaction of schizophrenics. Late in the film, a character makes an offhand announcement that’s probably supposed to register as shocking. Instead, it registers only as another major detail Margaret has simply elided. A good, maybe great, movie might have been salvaged from this material, but Margaret lets that version exist only in viewers’ imaginations.