Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl at an expensive private school in New York City, and while she is intelligent she is not above cheating a little in exams, which one of her teachers, Mr Aaron (Matt Damon) talks to her about but doesn't get very far. She enjoys the cut and thrust of class debate, however, not backward about coming forward, and today one of her best friends Darren (John Gallagher Jr) asks her out, leaving her flattered but unsure of where to take this next. Then something happens which completely throws her off-balance: she was only trying to find a cowboy hat to wear for a horse riding trip with her father...
Before you say anything about Margaret, it was almost compulsory to point out the troubled production history it suffered, with the editing process taking over five years after the film had ended shooting in 2005. It seemed writer and director Kenneth Lonergan just couldn't get his act together in bringing the film to a satisfying conclusion, with the result it became a major headache in his career and an embarrassment to the studio that it took so long to even get one cut which was at least satisfying on some level as a story, never mind the two versions which were actually released. And even then, watching what they came up with remained frustrating, not least because by this stage it was a film whose time had passed.
Although bearing that in mind, when you did watch the longer, three hour edit you could see that Lonergan had been so intent on bringing as much of an experience of his main character's life to the screen as he possibly could that it still came across as needing work, and could easily have lasted another hour without feeling as if it was a fully realised picture. Watching it was like having a conversation with a genuinely interesting stranger who was telling you about their trials and tribulations, but then having fatigue set in and eventually wanting them in no uncertain terms to stop talking so you can both get on with your own lives. Yet the fact remained they were still engaging.
Much of that was down to the quality of the performances and the writing, which brought out the best in them all, in particular Anna Paquin whose depiction of a teenager struggling with responsibilities no one should really have to deal with was extremely painful to watch, but only because she so inhabited the character that she was almost too convincing. Lisa's world is not so much turned upside down as a long, dark shadow is cast over it when she is out shopping for that hat and catches sight of exactly what she wants on the head of a passing bus driver (Mark Ruffalo, star of Lonergan's previous, far less issue-fraught directorial effort). In trying to attract his attention, something truly awful happens that neither of them intended, but must blame themselves for ever after.
That scene is one of the strongest in the film, and it needed to be, as the driver doesn't notice the red light, hits a woman (Allison Janney), taking off her leg and killing her, though not before she has died in the distraught Lisa's arms. It's superbly acted, shocking and disturbing, yet it's as if Lonergan spent the rest of the movie, and indeed the rest of about six years, flailing as he tried to live up to it, so Lisa goes back to school, continues to stay with her divorced theatre star mother (J. Smith-Cameron, the director's wife), and so forth, but things have irrevocably changed, as if the accident has sent out ripples of pain through the souls of everyone in the film. Lisa insists on making poor choices, which you could put down to the crushing guilt she is unable to handle, and tests the audience's sympathy, but as you can see why she has ended up this way you can identify where she is compensating if not where she could improve. As Margaret (not named after a character) sprawls ever onwards, it impresses but fails to give shape to uncontrollable grief. Music by Nico Muhly.