(Quick aside before I actually start the review. The only reason that You Can Count on Me [the last film to get the elusive score of A+ on this blog] jettisoned to the top of my Netflix queue a month or so ago was that I suddenly saw a flare-up of internet news about the latest film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, Margaret. Author Bret Easton Ellis said it was his favorite movie of 2011, and reviews had been top-notch across the board [for those rare people who saw the film when it was originally released]. Margaret‘s production process will likely be one of the most legendary in the industry as principal photography ended in 2007, and Lonergan spent the last five years mired in development hell as he fought with the studios about how to edit the film. It was worth the wait because Lonergan now joins Federico Fellini as the only director to have two films get an “A+” on my blog and the only director to have all of his films get this rare score. He is a truly underappreciated master.)

The defining trait of writer/director/playwright Kenneth Lonergan is his gift to ensure that no scene in any of his works plays out the way Hollywood conventions expects it to. When, in You Can Count on Me, Mark Ruffalo’s drunken Terry stumbled into his nephew’s (Kieran Culkin) bedroom and began insulting the boy’s father, no lessons were learned. A family didn’t come closer together. A precocious 11  year old didn’t teach grown-ups about the beauty of life. Instead Kenneth Lonergan delivered family. He delivered it without varnish, embellishment, or bullshit. There was a logic to the actions of Terry and Samantha Prescott, but with such complexity of character and a devotion to the chaos and impertinence of real life, you were never quite sure what they were going to do next. The only thing you knew was that Lonergan was going to provide an insight into the truth of familial relationships with more veracity than any writer before (or since).

You Can Count on Me was one of those rare films that I could describe as being practically perfect. Lonergan’s focus was razor sharp, and the dialogue remains some of the most realistic of any film I’ve ever watched. His follow-up, last year’s Margaret, widens Lonergan’s scope as he tackles the sort of existential and philosophical questions that were previously the domain of Ingmar Bergman (guilt, responsibility, burgeoning sexuality, and mortality). Along with the film’s heavier themes than its predecessor, this cerebral approach could have robbed Lonergan of the quiet beauty that made You Can Count on Me so remarkable. Thanks to a profound refinement of his filmcraft as well as fierce lead performances and his typically prescient evaluation of human relations, Margaret may not hit its marks in every second of the film (as You Can Count on Me did), but it transforms itself into a far more grand and rewarding experience.

Here’s a moment that, handled by any other director, could have been a trite and sentimental trainwreck. A self-involved but highly intelligent seventeen year old girl (Anna Paquin) in NYC is desperately searching for a cowboy hat for a horse riding trip with her distant father on the west coast. When she sees one on a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), she tries to get his attention even though he’s driving away. As he half-flirts with her through the closed doors, the driver runs a red light and fatally mangles the body of a woman (Juno‘s Allison Janney). Immediately crippled by the guilt of the tragedy she inadvertently caused, the girl (Lisa Cohen) rushes to be by the woman’s side to comfort her as she dies. Far more panicked than the dying woman herself, Lisa finds herself soaked in the blood of the dying woman who confuses her with her daughter before she slides out of her mortal coil.

There are a million ways that scene could have played out that wouldn’t have rang with the same truth as Lonergan’s brutally honest approach. The dying woman could have made some profound speech as she died. The death itself could have been more noble or less messy. Lisa could have been a too effective comforter. The people (not doctors) futilely trying to save the woman’s life could have been to clean cut and efficient. Instead, it was the opposite of all of that. The woman rages against the senselessness of what has just happened to her. Lisa tries to help the woman and keep her calm, but mostly she just pisses her off even more and confuses her. The civilians trying to help try to place a tourniquet but they don’t get it right until it’s too late. Allison Janney’s in the film for all of five minutes but displays an economy of performance that put most of this year’s Oscar nominees to shame.

And the rest of the film spirals off from that tragedy. Wrecked with guilt about her role in what happened, Lisa originally lies to the police to protect the bus driver because she knows he didn’t do it on purpose. Still as her self-loathing and self-flagellation progresses, Lisa’s life implodes as her self-destructive behavior takes it toll on everyone around her, including her actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron). Doing drugs, having promiscuous sex, and even beginning a relationship with one of her teachers (Matt Damon), Lisa scourges herself because she can’t face the fact that she was involved in the death of that woman. Even after she tells the police the truth about what happened (and they do nothing because he wasn’t criminally culpable), Lisa and the deceased’s closest friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin) lead a quest to hold the bus driver and the bus company legally responsible for what occurred (although Lisa’s motives are perhaps less cavalier).

Had Margaret been released in 2007 or 2008 as originally intended (instead of being haunted by a mountain of legal problems and its massive editing fiasco), Anna Paquin would have likely won her second Academy Award. Fierce barely begins to cover it. Much like Natalie Portman in Black Swan, this is the sort of transformative and mature performance from a young actress that shoots them to superstardom. Since Paquin already has an Oscar (as well as a Golden Globe for True Blood), she’s already a celebrated and respected starlet, but nothing in her past could have prepared audiences for this. Paquin may have been 23 while shooting the film, but it may be safe to say that no one has captured the confusion and tragedy of youthful indiscretion this well since James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. If she doesn’t leave you heartbroken, you may not have a  heart to begin with.

You may initially be thrown off by the idiosyncratic vocabulary of Lisa. She can slip in and out of a reasonable discussion of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear into a volley of “like”s and “totally”s that would make a cast member of 90210. It never seems artificial or forced, just a little weird (though no other characters in the film speak like that). When the big moments arrive though, Paquin taps into something so deep that she nearly overwhelms the film. Whether it’s the nonchalant way she calls up a local boy (Kieran Culkin) to take her virginity or how she explodes on a police officer when he informs her they can’t prosecute the bus driver or breaks down when her dramatics finally isolate her from her one remaining friend, Paquin’s dramatic range is total and whether the scene calls for understated subtlety or explosive emotion, she dominates the film.

If it’s possible, J. Smith-Cameron was even better as Lisa’s beleaguered mother. In the pantheon of realistic and and tormented cinematic mothers, she is only equaled by Thirteen‘s Holly Hunter and Terms of Endearment‘s Shirley MacLaine. Rather than simply acting as an accessory to the emotional turmoil and ethical quandaries facing Lisa, she’s a full-fledged character in her own right. And J. Smith Cameron imbues Joan with all of the bitterness of having a daughter who doesn’t appreciate her, the loneliness of a grown woman in her 50s without love, and the fears of an actress on the cusp of success. Just like Lisa, Joan is an emotionally demanding role and like all great Kenneth Lonergan roles, it slowly reveals itself in front of the audience. No film in recent memory could have a scene where a mother angrily calls her daughter a cunt and you sympathize more with the mother.

You Can Count on Me was a brilliant example of the strengths of raw storytelling and fully realized characters, but the film often felt visually flat. As a playwright, it was understandable that Lonergan focused on the aspects of writing that he knew better than the visual possibilities of cinematic storytelling. Well, the intervening years since You Can Count on Me have obviously been kind to Mr. Lonergan because Margaret is a far more visually lush and ambitious film. Knowing when to let the actions speak more clearly than his dialogue ever could, Margaret incorporates multiple, long moments without any dialogue. Whether it’s Lisa’s guilt-ridden walk home after having her own narcissism thrown in her face or simply letting the camera linger on the subtleties of Joan’s face as she and Ramon take in a night at the opera, Lonergan found a visual muse as powerful as the forces shaping his dialogue.

Not since The Tree of Life have I watched an American film so committed to asking serious questions about our place in the world. Where The Tree of Life focused more on existential matters of love, death, and the relationships between fathers and sons, Margaret explores the ethical side of the philosophy coin. As Lisa begins her quest to bring the bus driver and the company to justice, she claims it’s because she wants the people who did wrong in this scenario to take responsibility for what they did, but honestly, she’s just as interested in finding a way to shift blame from herself. Is there even such a thing as justice? What are the motivations that our heroes and heroines have for trying to ruin the life of a man who killed a woman in an accident? In so far as Margaret gives you answers at all, none of them are easy, and they force you to confront some of the uglier sides of human nature.

(side note. I started this review several days ago but haven’t been able to finish it because I’ve been working and it’s freshman move-in weekend at WVU. I’ve been busy helping my sister. Very little time for writing). Although I’m not a fan of phrases like, “people don’t make movies like this anymore,” one could be tempted to use it to describe the works of Kenneth Lonergan. However, that wouldn’t even be appropriate because nobody makes movies like Kenneth Lonergan. The emotional pay-off of his films and the attention to detail and realism in his characters is simply peerless. Perhaps it’s because he has a film production schedule that rivals the deliberateness of Terrence Malick, but if this man were to release films more often (and he has plenty of time to make more films), he could gain a reputation among film connoisseurs as being one of the greatest screen-writers of the last 30 years. Here’s praying that the production issues that plagued Margaret don’t impede Lonergan from blessing audiences with more of his great works in the future.

Final Score: A+