Manhattan high school student Lisa (Anna Paquin) has rigid moral principles, but finds them tested when she witnesses a fatal bus accident. Guilt-ridden, she embarks on a fraught quest to seek retribution for the victim, as her high-strung mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and kindly maths teacher (Matt Damon) look helplessly on.
In a startling performance that might flummox the True Blood crowd, Paquin shoulders the full weight of the story’s complex moral framework, a cat’s-cradle of crossed emotions and perceptions in which nobody gets what they want out of anyone else; Lonergan never writes easy redemption when a compromised version will do. Amid its ample dramatic rewards, Margaret might be the most subtly moving study American cinema has yet produced of social fractures in post-9/11 New York.
As a rule, not many films left in post-production limbo for six years turn out to be worth the wait, but Margaret is an exquisite exception: knotty, ambitious and trading in messy human truths, it’s the work of a master dramatist. Here’s hoping Lonergan’s next one reaches us a little faster.
Reviewed by Guy Lodge