Movie Review: Margaret
Sarah Steele, Anna Paquin and Matthew Broderick in Margaret. Picture: Fox.

This long delayed second feature by writer/ director Kenneth Lonergan, after 2000's superb You Can Count On Me, is a sprawling, astute, deeply affecting drama.

It's one of those rare examples of a film project being plagued with difficulties - in this case creative differences between Lonergan and the studio on the final cut - and coming out unscathed.

Set in a post-September 11 New York, the film, named for the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Spring and Fall rather than one of its characters, surveys the emotionally complex, morally questionable travails of a 17-year-old schoolgirl in the aftermath of a terrible accident in which she played a pivotal role.

Anna Paquin (pre-True Blood and in her early 20s) gives a raw, utterly compelling performance as Lisa Cohen, the precocious, privileged daughter of a divorced Broadway stage actress (J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan's wife) and an LA-based screenwriter (Lonergan).

After school one day, she's out hunting for a cowboy hat in Manhattan, and, seeing a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing one she likes, she starts chasing the bus down the street, flirting and distracting him. He runs a red light and mows down a pedestrian (Allison Janney) who, after several distraught, sickening minutes, dies in Lisa's bloodied arms.

The rest of the film is devoted to how she processes the accident, and it is fascinating, not least for Paquin's arresting performance.

It is one that, woven together with the trauma, really captures that character-shaping period between adolescence and adulthood: testing sexual boundaries, parental influence and beginning to grasp the breadth and depth of the world from the prism of fundamental self-centredness and inexperience.

A lot of the drama is played out in the classroom in vocal political arguments between fellow students (Olivia Thirlby, Kieran Culkin and John Gallagher Jr all make strong impressions) and sometimes with Lisa's liberal-minded teachers (Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick) outside of school as well.

That cusp between youth and adulthood is one that has long fascinated Lonergan, as anyone who has seen his superb 1996 play, This Is Our Youth, will know.

Here, it's a uniquely female perspective he's interested in - sexual politics, mercurial ethical sensibilities and boundary-pushing antics. He understands that provocative behaviour doesn't discount vulnerability and while Lisa is not always likeable, there is no judgment.

There are some wonderful scenes with Lisa and her mother, as well as with another female role model she seeks out, Emily, played in a blistering performance by Jeannie Berlin. She's a friend of the dead woman - a character who isn't always right but who illuminates some of Lisa's behaviour.

Margaret is a long film at 149 minutes (Lonergan believed it should have been 30 minutes longer) and its circuitous structure will test the patience of some. Others, especially those with an interest in the minds of young women, will agree with me its messy, richly observed, wonderfully performed portrait is well worth the seven-year wait.

Although Broderick's English teacher recites Hopkins' poem in the film, revisit it after the film and Margaret will ring with clarity. <div class="endnote">

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The West Australian

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