The film firmly plants itself within the first few minutes with an incredibly well shot and edited, disturbing sequence of events surrounding a bus accident. Lonergan, within moments, manages to take us, relaxed and smiling, from an exciting, flirtatious, romp, right into the heart of a devastating and well planned montage of urban horror.
Lisa is witness to the events, and the psychological aftermath of the incident slowly spins her out of control, taking everyone around her with her in a whirlpool of emotional destruction.
Lisa grabs on to whatever she can to slow the downward spiral: verbal aggression, manipulation, rejection, and sex, whatever works for the moment. As the destructive force of who she's becoming plows through the lives around her she finds one source of grounding in the calculated destruction of the man who's unintentionally entangled her in this horrific mess.
Lonergan spices Lisa's journey by openly confronting the sensitivity around discourse tackling the delicate events of September 11, and a new generation's feelings and understanding of the Holocaust. During class, heated arguments between the half-Jewish Lisa and a Muslim classmate stir guilt and recrimination, which in turn spill over into the mainstream of the Lisa's life.
Lonergan's choices on how to handle the sensitive content of the film are impeccable. Where there would have been ample opportunity within many of the more intense scenes to go for the Hollywood solution, obvious and unimaginative, he allows his audience to put the pieces together themselves, never dipping once into the pool of gratuity.
Paquin's character Lisa has been criticized in reviews as infuriating; that's much too one dimensional. Paquin digs in deep and pulls things out that only the best at their craft can do. She doesn't shy away from going places that aren't necessarily pretty; disappearing within her character, seducing a mixture of loathing and sympathy with unquestionable power and ease.
There is a true sense of theatre about the film not only with the dialogue, which is superb and real (mistakes and all), but with the way the actors play off each other as in the porch scene with Lisa and the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), or the countless confrontations between Lisa and her equally flawed actress mother Joan (the brilliant J. Smith-Cameron). The entire cast is mesmerizing, right down to the extras (watch the background actors during the bus scene).
Jean Reno, Matt Damon, and Matthew Broderick fill some of the smaller, understated roles flawlessly. Allison Janney has the best tragic, yet humorous, line in the film within a very short, yet poignant role and Kieran Culkin effortlessly falls into the role of teenage stud, showing yet another degree of his range.
Margaret leaves a significant impact and plenty to think about long after the film is over. It is a well thought out film with stellar performances. A must see for serious film-goers. Watch for listings this fall.