In Margaret, cruising through life on a pair of really good thighs and a complicated smile, Lisa Cohen (the astounding Anna Paquin) is a self-described "privileged, Upper West Side Jew." Lisa is faced with a moral awakening, and it's like the description of enlightenment in Zen: it's a red hot ball she can neither swallow nor spit out.
One day Lisa flirts with an MTA bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) long enough so that he accidentally crushes a pedestrian. As all problems come down, utterly, to herself, Lisa involves herself in a search for justice, though this doesn't interrupt her coming of age, losing her virginity, crashing her report card and getting into fights with her shallow actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron).
Director Kevin Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) captures an adolescent state of mind usually celebrated in movies as the height of whip-smartness—flattering the hell out of a really lucrative ticket-buying demographic. Paquin's acting should have got every award there was to get in 2011, as seen when she moves through a hallway to a boy she likes to tease or lashing out at the genuinely bereaved in a self-righteous fury.
The supporting work is immaculate. Matthew Broderick was brave to take the part of an inept English teacher, whose quote of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem provides the title. Matt Damon excels as a Midwestern good-guy of a geometry teacher who doesn't know enough to keep away from Lisa. Other fine performances abound: Jeannie Berlin as the one woman who really has Lisa's number; a Latin stage-door Johnny (Jean Reno, at his best), an essentially merry liability lawyer (Jonathan Hadary) and a patient-as-a-pachyderm cop (Stephen Adly Guirgis).
So why haven't you seen this movie? Because due to behind-the-scenes Hollywood fighting, some ugly lawsuits and three different edits of the film (one by Martin Scorsese, believing so much in the film that he worked for free), Margaret opened in exactly two movie theaters: one in L.A., one in New York. It is, essentially, a buried masterpiece.
Margaret recalls Woody Allen in his prime, only without the schtick. Similar to that '90s masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter, it's about how litigation has come to replace self-analysis. As for its length, Margaret is in the company of long movies (Secrets and Lies, Tokyo Story, Short Cuts among them) that could have been even longer. The editing process sabotaged its release; the movie was utterly unpromoted. Hopefully its luck will change as word gets out.
'Margaret' screens Friday, March 1, at 7pm and Sunday, March 3, at 4pm. Sonoma Film Institute, Warren Auditorium, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. $7. 707.664.2606.