Pity poor Margaret. Kenneth Lonergan's second film has finally arrived in cinemas after six years of confrontations, reediting and legal wrangling, although the term "arrived" is perhaps a too polite one to describe the way Fox has dumped it so unceremoniously. To treat a film in such a manner – denying press screenings, offering no publicity and restricting it to a handful of cinemas (just one screen in London) – suggests the film is a disaster that will only bring embarrassment upon the studio, and it will better for everyone if they just quietly bury it. The curious thing about Margaret, however, is that the film isn't a disaster. In fact, Margaret is one of the most adventurous and impressive American films that you're likely to see this – that is, if you can see it.
It feels so odd to have to seek out a film like Margaret because if it had been released this time five years ago, with a supportive studio behind it, then might have been viewing it in the middle of its awards push, and remarking upon the leaps and bounds that Lonergan had made between his first two features. His 2001 debut You Can Count on Me was a low-key but perfectly formed independent film and we might have expected him to subsequently have the kind of career that someone like Tom McCarthy has carved out for himself. Instead, Lonergan has produced a work of startling ambition and lacerating emotional content that remains utterly fascinating even as it occasionally threatens to veer out of control or buckle under its thematic weight.
It also features one of the year's greatest acting performances in the lead role. Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, an ordinary 17 year-old from New York City. When I say Lisa is an ordinary teen I mean just that – she's a smart girl who does stupid things; she presents herself as a more mature person than she is and then finds herself in difficult situations as a result. Many viewers will watch Lisa and describe her as a nightmarish central character, but Lonergan and Paquin deserve enormous credit for never pandering to audience expectations by attempting to make her sympathetic. They simply let her exists in all of her complicated, abrasive, turbulent glory, and Paquin's conviction in the central role is something quite wondrous to behold. Margaret is chiefly a film about the deep sense of guilt and shame that Lisa feels when she inadvertently causes a fatal bus accident, but it's about so much more than that. Perhaps too much.
As Lisa attempts to make amends for her actions we see how her behaviour affects everyone she comes into contact with. She makes life extremely difficult for her mother (J. Smith-Cameron, a wonderful sparring partner for Paquin), who already has enough on her plate with a new man in her life (an odd, droll cameo from Jean Reno) and a play approaching its premiere. She has a huge impact on the lives of the bus driver responsible for the accident (Mark Ruffalo) and the closest friend (Jeannie Berlin) of the woman who died in it, and she has intimate interludes with a slacker (Kieran Culkin), a besotted classmate (John Gallagher Jr.) and a teacher (a startlingly young-looking Matt Damon). You want even more than that? How about a few lengthy debates on American foreign policy in a post-9/11 world, which would have presumably felt more resonant and organic five years ago than they do now? Lonergan certainly fits a lot into his two and a half hours, and you can see why he spent so many years fighting for a longer cut.
With such a surfeit of plot and metaphorical allusions, Margaret inevitably feels a bit overstuffed and unbalanced at times, and some characters feel short-changed in this version (Damon's teacher in particular), but on a scene-by-scene basis Margaret feels thrillingly alive. The flat – occasionally downright ugly – shooting style adopted by Lonergan and DP Ryszard Lenczewski (who has done impressive work in the past) doesn't prevent us from becoming engrossed in the often explosive drama they capture. Almost every scene in Margaret hinges on a vivid sense of emotional honesty that Lonergan and his exceptional actors manage to access with unerring consistency, and the editing skilfully keeps us on our toes, frequently cutting away at what feels like a crucial juncture. The film is a sprawling, unpredictable rollercoaster of anxiety, sadness and truth, and it's a film blessed with an all-too-rare sense of vitality and intelligence.
In fact, Margaret is so good it's almost inconceivable that Fox have treated it so shabbily. They may well feel they have already lost enough money and pulled out enough hair over Lonergan's long-gestating passion project, but surely they can see that they have something of value on their hands here? The excellent performances, the sense of ambition and the undeniable emotional impact the film possesses mark it out as something special, and it's astonishing to consider that it almost never saw the light of day. Margaret is flawed but invigorating, and in an American cinematic landscape that so rarely offers surprising, challenging fare, its re-emergence from the ashes feels like something of a miracle.