‘Margaret’ growing on critics, but will audiences find it?


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The film ‘Margaret’ opened two weekends ago in Los Angeles and New York with little advertising or fanfare. Shot in 2005 and embroiled in a years-long post-production mess of conflicting cuts and legal imbroglios, the film became something of a mythic creature, with many wondering whether it would ever come out. So, its quiet release didn’t seem that distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures was dumping the film so much as just trying to get it over with.

Written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan as a follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature, ‘You Can Count on Me,’ ‘Margaret’ was met with tepid reviews from the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter that mostly portrayed the film as a muddled victim of its backstage dramas. The film’s fate seemed sealed. Except more people started seeing ‘Margaret.’ And they can’t seem to stop talking about it.


In part because of its expansive ambitions, the film is a conversation piece as much as a self-contained work. Somehow at once novelistic and operatic, it is as much about the personal growth of one specific New York City teenager as it is an essay on the city’s post-9/11 hangover of grief, uncertainty and self-examination.

Having witnessed (and in small part causing) a fatal bus accident, high school student Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin, looking softer and younger than she now does on TV’s ‘True Blood’) struggles with reconciling her feelings of responsibility with somehow making things right, whatever that may mean, and in turn moving forward. The film’s supporting cast includes the impressive roster of Matt Damon, J. Smith-Cameron, Allison Janney, Keiran Culkin, Jean Reno, Jeannie Berlin, Mark Ruffalo, Rosemarie DeWitt and Matthew Broderick. Olivia Thirlby and Krysten Ritter, relative unknowns at the time, pass by in small roles. There is no character named Margaret.

Dealing with big themes and big emotions and with a running time of 2½ hours, there is something overwhelming about ‘Margaret,’ which has made it tantalizing fodder for movie folks on Twitter, where people often love to champion an underdog or proclaim their passion for films being overlooked and underseen. As ‘Margaret’ expanded in its second weekend to cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, and more people have been catching up with and talking about the film even in N.Y. and L.A., writers such as Wesley Morris, Carrie Rickey, Ben Kenigsberg, Karina Longworth, Alison Willmore, Matt Singer, Mike D’Angelo, Vadim Rizov, Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody (as well as myself) have all taken to voicing support for the film either through reviews or on Twitter. There is no small undercurrent of simply trying to encourage awareness of the film, hoping audiences know it’s out there before it’s gone from theaters.

In a post at Yahoo’s The Projector blog, Will Leitch did the math to surmise that the film was seen by only 624 people in its first weekend. The film expanded to 14 cities this past weekend, and its box office went up by 70%, for a per-screen average of around $900 and a new total nearing $25,000.

In Los Angeles, the film opened at the Landmark, one of the city’s top-grossing theaters; for its second week, it moved over to the second-run Culver Plaza. (Even getting that second week at all could be considered a victory for the film.) Audiences that want the chance to join in the conversation and see for themselves what has critics a-Twitter had better try to find the time to meet ‘Margaret’ before the last show on Thursday.



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-- Mark Olsen