MARGARET focuses on a 17-year-old New York City high-school student Lisa (Anna Paquin) who feels certain that she inadvertently played a role in a traffic accident that has claimed a woman's life, Monica (Allison Janney): Lisa was chasing a bus whose driver Maretti (Mark Ruffalo) ran a red light because of Lisa's distraction trying to discover where the Maretti bought his cowboy hat. Monica dies in Lisa's arms while asking for her daughter also named Lisa (we later learn Monica's daughter died at age 12 from leukemia). Lisa at first feels sorry for Maretti, thinking that if she tells the truth Maretti will loose his job and his family support. Lisa's actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) encourages her to not give accurate testimony to the police, a decision Lisa follows and spends the rest of the film regretting, and in making attempts to set things right she meets with opposition at every step. Torn apart with frustration, she begins emotionally brutalizing her family, her friends, her teachers, and most of all, herself. She has been confronted quite unexpectedly with a basic truth: that her youthful ideals are on a collision course against the realities and compromises of the adult world.
The world that Lisa occupies includes teachers - played by Matt Damon (who crosses a forbidden line when Lisa seeks his advice as the only truly adult man she knows, Matthew Broderick whose class discussions over literature are brittle and acerbic and deeply disturbing - her introduction to adolescent needs and physical incidents at the hands of John Gallagher, Jr. (now of The Newsroom fame), Paul (Kieran Culkin) - her relationship with her needy single mother Joan whose newly dating Ramon (Jean Reno), her contact with the deceased's friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin - brilliant), and the deceased's only family - all in an attempt to somehow set things right but Lisa admitting that she is as responsible for Monica's death as is Maretti. But the world outside can't cope with anything but financial compensation as the resolution to Lisa's angst.
There are many other characters brought to life by some VERY fine actors and the stunning musical score by Nico Muhly includes moments at the Metropolitan Opera where we actually get to see and hear Christine Goerke as Bellini's Norma singing 'Casta Diva' and Renée Fleming and Susan Graham singing the Barcarolle from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, allowing the opening and closing of the film to be accompanied by a quiet guitar piece, as well as proving Muhly's very highly accomplished music to underscore the moods of the film. The cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski underlines the tension - form the imagery of slow motion crowd movement in New York during the opening sequences to the stabilization of important encounters between the characters. A lot is said and screamed and the level of communication and actions by Anna Paquin's Lisa alienate the audience at times, but the film makes some very solid statements about how we are acidly interacting or not connecting in our current state of society. That deserves attention. The film requires a lot form the audience, but in this viewer's mind it is well worth the time.