A complex, difficult, amazing film with a convoluted history, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” came and went, appeared, disappeared, was brought back long enough to garner more than 50 places on 2011’s top-ten lists. But, other than enthusiastic critics, audiences were miniscule.
To remedy that, the San Francisco Film Society (www.sffs.org) is bringing “Margaret” to the SFFS Cinema on Post Street, Feb. 17-23. If you value challenging films of great artistic value, this is your chance to catch up with a hitherto mostly overlooked work.
“Margaret” is living proof that the “thumbs up/down” school of reporting is idiotic at best. Not even the many arms of Lord Ganesh are sufficient here.
On one hand, it’s a 2 1/2-hour meditation on teenage angst, self-absorption, hysterics, and barely suppressed urge to cause harm. On the other hand, “Margaret” is a compulsive, engrossing, illuminating film.
You may see it as an anguished tug-of-war between taking responsibility or being sucked into the bottomless hole of obsession. Or, the film can be seen as a landmark drama about the irresistible pull of a thoroughly unsympathetic, unlikeable character, not seen on the screen since John Cassavetes’ sport with Gena Rowlands.
If you think a Manhattan teenager cannot match the repulsion of Richard III, let Anna Paquin in the leading role change your mind. (Among the film’s complications: Paquin is Lisa, not the title role; there is no character in the film named Margaret, but if you pay close attention to a class about poetry, you’ll understand.)
So now, we come to the task even more onerous than the business with thumbs: “what is it about?”
“Margaret” is about Paquin’s smart, affluent, confused teenager (and she is that, even if she was already 23 when the film was made in 2005) being involved in a fatal street accident. There – isn’t that helpful? Not really, in view of the parade of characters and situations that follow.
That parade, by the way, is an impressive list of names: J. Smith-Cameron as Lisa’s mother, Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick among her teachers, Kieran Culkin and a bunch of young Turks among her classmates; also Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, and others, but from the moment she first appears, Jeannie Berlin makes everybody recede into the background.
Apparently, a main reason for “Margaret” being held up for five-six years was Lonergan’s refusal to cut the original three-hour running time. Now that a half hour of that is gone (and there are visible clumsy cuts), the film is still too long.
Thumbs cannot express the difference between holding a film in high esteem and faulting the director for lack of discipline. So, on one hand, it tries the viewer’s patience, but on the other, as Renée Fleming and Susan Graham sing “The Tales of Hoffmann” Barcarolle in the Met, you experience the conflict’s partial, tentative resolution more fully than if it was the “right length.”