A recount of the plot wouldn't do any service because there really isn't a plot through line to the movie outside of Lisa's quest to right the wrong of the opening tragedy. But that's maybe half the runtime, as the rest of it is devoted to her mom, Joan (Lonergan's wife, J. Smith-Cameron, who is brilliant in the role), an off-Broadway actress going through previews of her show while also developing a relationship with Ramon (Jean Reno). Lisa also goes through feelings for her good hearted friend Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.) and burnout Paul (Kieran Culkin) as well as her crush on her math teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon).
I'm gonna stop right there describing anything plot related because it could easily take up the whole page just describing what happens. But Lonergan isn't interested in a standard narrative film, so why treat it that way? The movie is told chronologically and not surrealistically or anything like that, it's just that Lonergan wants to spread things out and really get a sense of Lisa's life as she swings through her emotions (good, bad, and indifferent) and relationships. And it's here that he really lets Anna Paquin shine as she embodies each of those emotions and never makes Lisa feel like anything other than an intelligent teenage girl struggling to find her way in life and making many, many mistakes along that way. It's one of the great performances of the decade and should've swept every award show in 2011.
One complaint about the actors is that we know many of the names, but that doesn't correspond to their screen time. Allison Janney has one scene, Mark Ruffalo has about one and a half, I'm not sure why Matthew Broderick was cast in the small and unimportant role he was cast in, etc. It's not distracting like The Thin Red Line is when John Travolta, George Clooney, Adrien Brody, and others step on screen for a few seconds to distract us from the movie. So it's not a big complaint, but it's still there.
You might be thinking "isn't Anna Paquin in her 30's? Too old to believably play a high schooler." And you'd be right thinking that in 2014, or even 2011 when Margaret was released and Paquin was 29. But the movie was actually shot in 2005, when Paquin was just 23 playing high school age, much more acceptable. Lonergan had final cut, so the studio couldn't take the movie away from him and cut it themselves, but the director and the studio could never agree on a length of cut. It wasn't supposed to be longer than 150 minutes, so even when Lonergan's friend Martin Scorsese and his 3-time Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker came in to help out, their cut was 165 minutes, a cut Lonergan approved but the studio thought was still too long. Lawsuits ensued between the studio, filmmakers, financiers and probably more we haven't heard about.
Ultimately we got the movie in 2011, and I'm glad we did. While I'm not one of those many people saying it's one of the best films of the decade, it's well worth watching because it's so interesting and impeccably acted by the entire cast. And the more I think about it, sometimes movies like this that I don't think make a big impact on me, because of their lack of narrative, actually keep haunting me with their perfectly drawn characters and situations. Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart (ironically released the same year Margaret was shot) was a similar example that kept coming back to me as I thought about Margaret in that way. Anyway, if you even have a passing interest in seeing the movie, I'd encourage you to. You won't be disappointed.