Are you there, Fox? It’s me, ‘Margaret’

To call Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” my most anticipated film of the year wouldn’t be stating the case with total accuracy. Rather, it’s been my most anticipated film of the last few years running, repeatedly raising hopes of a sighting since 2006 before dropping from view amid ever more legal paperwork, like some form of film industry mirage.

We’ve touched on the film’s tortured route to the screen several times over the years, but happily, we don’t have to rehash that now. Through whatever process of grace or compromise, “Margaret” made it through the tunnel: the film is finished, released and here to be appreciated. Well, sort of. As if embarrassed by its complex backstory, distributor Fox Searchlight has seemingly attempted to fulfil its obligation to the film while sweeping it quietly under the rug: its September release was limited to say the least, with a number of major US cities left out of the loop altogether before it vanished from release. (Meanwhile, its UK release on Friday is a single-screen engagement in London.)

Now, with its hands full promoting the likes of “The Descendants,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Shame” and “The Tree of Life,” Searchlight is neglecting to mount any form of awards campaign for the film — despite some ecstatic reviews from the comparatively few critics privileged enough to see it. That extends even to the process of sending out screeners, denying many uninitiated critics and awards voters the chance even to consider it for their end-of-year lists and honors. (Kris, by the way, is one of them.)

If that’s an unfortunate outcome for any halfway decent independent film hoping to find an audience, it’s a deeply saddening one for a film as singularly astonishing as “Margaret,” which I finally saw yesterday at its only UK press screening, and which fiercely redeems whatever tangled creative process Lonergan endured to get it to us. As critics, we’re warned all the time to avoid using the word “masterpiece” at first blush, but I’m not sure I know what else “Margaret” is. Piercing, richly chaotic, fat with feeling and ideas, it’s the work of a brilliant dramatist not just at the very peak of his powers but in active fear of them being taken from him: I can only hope you understand how much I adore his 2000 debut feature “You Can Count on Me” when I say that this tardy follow-up makes it look like a stepping stone.

If nothing else — and trust me, it is plenty else — “Margaret” deserves to be bookmarked as perhaps the most searching and true of all post-9/11 New York films, itching with social uncertainties about strangers and family alike. There are points where it directly (though never patly) addresses American society’s ruptured sense of self and security over the past decade, notably in testily written classroom debates between Lisa, Anna Paquin’s privileged Jewish protagonist and a challenging Muslim rival. Still, this thematic undertow is no less present in the film’s core domestic drama, beginning with Lisa’s innocent instigation of a fatal bus accident and extending to the wary network of acquaintances affected by it.

This is solitaire-structured storytelling in which every character’s wants seemingly block another’s, and no one trusts the other enough to clear the obstruction. As a kind of outsize parable of American middle-class manners, it’s appropriately, enthrallingly messy; as one-on-one character study, it’s precise yet detail-flooded, academic yet shot through with compassion. Lonergan shapes and splices his scenes in such a way as to surprise at every turn: conversations are left dangling, reaction shots teased, inevitable lines left unsaid, yet even the most abrupt of cuts maintains the thematic thread in parallel circumstances.

The ensemble is no less exacting or daring. Had this had a respectable, drama-free arthouse release a few years ago, there’s little doubt in my mind that Anna Paquin would be a two-time Oscar nominee (at least) by now: her Lisa is as aggressively adult as she is maddeningly adolescent, holding this heaving narrative together with the desperate, clear-eyed conviction of those one more certain of the need to do the right thing than the method. J. Smith-Cameron is no less spiny or alternately tender as her lonely, high-strung mother; brief but incisive turns by Mark Ruffalo as the disaffected bus driver and Matt Damon as Lisa’s perhaps over-kindly math teacher ensure not a performance goes wasted here. 

You may have got the idea, then, that I think “Margaret” is one of the year’s very best films, one as deserving of across-the-board awards attention (did I mention Nico Muhly’s layered, plangent score?) as it is destined not to receive it. Nothing new there: it’s par for the course with many of my favorites on an annual basis. The film is the reward, and all that. But it’s distressing that, for many viewers and even critics, the film can’t even be that: the least it can ask for is to be seen.

Happily, other people feel the same way. Today, coincidentally enough, I suddenly noticed the film’s title cropping up repeatedly in my Twitter feed: closer investigation revealed that Slant critic Jaime Christley, another besotted fan of the film, has launched an online petition politely challenging Fox Searchlight to make the film available to critics and other awards voting bodies ahead of the upcoming glut of Ten Best lists and precursor awards. The plea goes as follows:

After a protracted post-production phase, news of which seemed to spell disaster, Kenneth Lonergan’s MARGARET opened quietly in New York City and Los Angeles a few months ago, after which it seemed to disappear. (In fact, many major cities in the US didn’t get the opportunity to see it at all.) In that time, the film became known as a miracle – a major work of cinematic art, against the odds – to almost all of the critics and cinephiles who were able to catch it during its brief appearance. It has all the earmarks of a grassroots-supported movie phenomenon. We, the undersigned respectfully request that film critics and other pertinent voting bodies be given the opportunity to view MARGARET prior to voting in applicable awards, or compiling applicable year-end “best of” lists.

I can’t say I recall any awards-season precedent for this, and I heartily commend Christley for doing this. Its effect on “Margaret”‘s long-flatlined awards hopes is immaterial; the victory will be if the studio is swayed to give even a little more exposure to this staggering film, the unexpected jewel of their already robust 2011 prestige slate. I’ve already signed; you can do so here.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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