Every year, starting around mid-November, Hollywood studios and indie distributors send critics pretty much every film that could even conceivably be considered "award-worthy." Some of their selections are optimistic, to put it mildly — Tower Heist went out this year, for example, even though no critics' organization that I'm aware of has a category called Best Heist Movie Set In A Tower. Fox Searchlight mailed screeners of Shame, The Descendants, The Tree of Life, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and even the relatively lightweight Win Win, and probably figured their work was done. Critics don't always agree with the suits about what constitutes excellent filmmaking, but they rarely, if ever, demand an opportunity to see an ambitious, art-driven movie that opened to mediocre reviews, failed to make a dime, and then vanished.
Yet that's exactly what happened last week, when a group of critics gabbing on Twitter suddenly decided to kick off a grassroots campaign on behalf of Margaret, the ill-fated sophomore effort by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. Shot in 2005, then mired for six years in post-production hell, the film finally received a low-profile limited release in September, and was largely dismissed as an overreaching failure; on a budget of roughly $14 million, it grossed $47,000 in the U.S. It never played Nashville, and likely won't.
During its brief run, however, it inspired a second, much more enthusiastic wave of response from other critics and cinephiles, who took it up as a cause. The hashtag #teammargaret turned into a rallying cry. When it became clear that Fox Searchlight wasn't planning to send out screeners, its partisans created an online petition asking that it be given a chance. (Full disclosure: The original idea for the petition was mine, though I just tossed it out casually as part of a general conversation. It was freelance critic Jaime Christley who did the actual grunt work.) As of this writing, it's amassed more than 600 signatures — including that of Mark Ruffalo, one of the film's actors.
As it happens, this impassioned skirmish about a matter of apparently little consequence would fit snugly within the world of Margaret itself. While Lonergan's feature debut, the widely acclaimed You Can Count on Me, was an intimate chamber drama, his follow-up deliberately, even recklessly, sprawls well beyond the borders of what appears to be its chosen subject. Anna Paquin (pre-True Blood, recall) plays Lisa Cohen, a privileged Manhattan teen who inadvertently contributes to the accidental death of a pedestrian when she distracts a city bus driver (Ruffalo). But Lonergan uses this incident merely as a springboard for a series of increasingly thorny and chaotic interactions between Lisa and everyone in her orbit, frequently putting the bus-accident plot on hold while people argue about whether it's pretentious to yell "Bravi!" at the opera or whether Syria is a military dictatorship. Entire conversations exist solely to demonstrate the difficulty of navigating competing agendas. Margaret is an unflinching portrait of adolescence in all its self-absorption; a poignant snapshot of New York City in the wake of 9/11; a rueful testament to the clumsy ways that we reconcile our conception of ourselves with the unruliness of the world at large; and much more besides.
In other words, it's almost crazily ambitious. Lonergan's shooting script, which I managed to acquire via the film-geek black market, runs 184 pages, which would normally result (at the standard estimate of one minute per page) in a three-hour movie. Trouble was, Lonergan's contract gave him final cut only if he brought the film in at less than 150 minutes. And there was nothing for him to excise, really, because the very meaning of the movie is encoded in its intentional ungainliness. Due to various lawsuits (one of which is still pending), nobody is talking about what went down in the editing room for all those years, though we know that at one point Martin Scorsese helped fashion a cut that he claimed was a masterpiece. After reading the script, though — to which the released film conforms precisely, except that big chunks of what's on the page are missing — I'm convinced that Lonergan nearly killed himself trying to figure out how to trim the film to its contractually obligated running time without utterly crippling it in the process.
Incredibly, he largely succeeded, though most of the initial reviews didn't see it that way. Knowing of Margaret's troubled production history, critics went in anticipating a total mess — and since that's what they got, they drew what would seem to be the obvious conclusion. ("Rarely has a film with ... such high dramatic goals ... been so messy and disorganized and fundamentally bad," wrote Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "And by 'rarely' I believe I mean 'never.' ") The movie tanked so rapidly that when I stuck around to catch the first few minutes of the 10 p.m. show in L.A. on opening night, having arrived late for the 7 p.m., I found myself in the wrong theater, as it had already been moved to a much smaller auditorium. Yet word of mouth kept growing, at least among the Twittering classes, with astonished gasps filed regularly at #teammargaret ("This is staggering. If it's in your city, YOU HAVE TO GO SEE IT." — Sight and Sound critic Vadim Rizov) and folks exchanging information about where it could still be found.
And then it was gone. There'll be a DVD eventually, of course, but it's still incredibly exciting to see critics (and a host of "civilian" fans) struggling to drag Margaret into the year-end conversation, somewhat against the will of its own distributor. (To their credit, Fox Searchlight responded to the petition by setting up screenings this week in several big cities, albeit mostly the same ones where it had opened commercially.) Time reporter Mary Pols tracked down Lonergan, who'd been under a gag order; speaking on a conference call with his attorney, in an ironic echo of Margaret's climactic scene, he said he "couldn't be more touched by the outpouring of support" (Pols' paraphrasing). Odds are the film won't actually win any prizes, but at least people are beginning to remember that it exists, and perhaps wonder whether the dismissive reviews they saw in September tell the whole story. It's a fittingly convoluted and passionate coda to a movie with too much heart and soul to tell a neat, tidy little story in 149 minutes or less.