Now on DVD: Margaret (2011)

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo

Among all those praising Lonergan’s Margaret as the quintessential “masterpiece that almost wasn’t” on account of half a decade spent in post-production Hell, there have been a fair amount of detractors that have vehemently despised its almost purposeful sloppiness. While I fit snugly in between these two opposing factions, 2011′s morality play about a high school student’s grief following a tragic bus accident is by all means a unique endeavor, and for all its missteps, it manages to successfully engage at the exact moment(s) you feel you’re about to lose faith.

At first examining the emotional fallout that’d obviously plague a teen of Paquin’s Lisa Cohen’s caliber – a dynamo private school student whose outspoken personality and overt stubbornness have often landed her in hot water – Margaret plays by-the-books until its midway point when a certain testimony is overturned. Given how masterful the film’s opening half is, it’s a shame that Lonergan’s deft characterizations and raw emotions fall victim to the film’s general lack of focus as it throws what feels like a dozen disparate plot strands at us at once in its final moments. Off-putting as this may be, it’s the writer/director’s steadfastness in making the film more about the people affected and their relationship with one another rather than the accident itself that makes it inherently fascinating.

Perplexing is the film’s attention to detail surrounding the legal case that spurns from Lisa’s willingess to alter her initial police report during these same latter moments, although it all feels necessary in the grand scheme of things. To elaborate, touching upon and then not following through with something such as this would prompt an additional question or two in conjunction with the innumerable amount viewers could feel inclined to ask initially. Intermittent technical prowess also litters Margaret‘s lengthy run time to break up any monotony, but it’s hard to tell why outside of Lonergan’s merely wanting to incorporate gaudy slow-mo shots accompanied with an above average score.

All in all, Margaret‘s alternately devastating and complex script does a lot of things right and an equal amount wrong. It’s length in conjunction with the increasingly detailed portraits the production paints is almost warranted, considering we’re given the chance to truly sympathize with or detest all of the individuals involved in such an horrific incident. Lonergan essentially covers all his bases in fully examining the fallout that takes place within both Lisa and her close-knit group of cohorts, even though the former’s questionable coping mechanisms (i.e. her inviting a boy over to take her virginity and so forth) distract us from the film’s central message, muddled as it may already be. After a while, though, I learned to take Margaret for what it was, and what it can be seen as is essentially a unique quasi-character study that challenges the viewer more than cinematic convention at regular intervals.

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