In the space of about six hours yesterday, a movie went from express-rush oblivion to cause célèbre. It's called Margaret.
Movies slip into obscurity all the time, some with remarkably big names attached. A search party couldn't find the recent home-invasion thriller Trespass in theaters, even with Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage starring. The culprits can range from awkward marketing to studio politics to behind-the-scenes shifts in distributor or film ownership.
But Margaret is a case story unto itself. Its writer-director, Kenneth Lonergan, was following up one of the best debut films of the decade, the comedy-drama You Can Count on Me. Margaret was shot in 2005, then spent the next several years in a limbo of lawsuits, negotiations and edits, with no less an intermediary than Martin Scorsese supervising one cut. (That's why star Anna Paquin looks significantly younger than her True Blood self today.)
Despite a cast that includes Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo — and in what's said to be an unforgettable one-scene role, Allison Janney — Margaret got the kind of contractual-obligation release reserved for pay-per-view-here-we-come clunkers. It played a handful of major markets briefly in October, and as of Oct. 23 the estimated $14 million production had grossed $46,495. By November, it seemed headed straight for the dustbin.
Yesterday, an online meme started a groundswell of support behind the film from critics making their year-end Top 10 lists. A petition started by critic Jaime Christley at Change.org (following the lead, he writes, of Time Out Chicago's Ben Kenigsberg) beseeches distributor Fox Searchlight to make the film available to members of voting organizations, whose year-end awards can give overlooked movies a second life (and help raise consideration for Oscar nominations).
In just its first 90 minutes yesterday afternoon, the petition had already attracted 112 names. It's now at 355 and counting, including the names of Ruffalo and critics representing publications as diverse as The New Yorker, Christianity Today and Slate.
Is the movie good? An examination of post-9/11 morality and personal responsibility centering on a student (Paquin) who witnesses a horrific accident, it received mixed-to-poor reviews that suggested Lonergan's ambitions hadn't survived the movie's torturous post-production history. (Here's Salon: "a fascinating, half-brilliant disaster.") But the many champions of the film coming forward (among them Scene contributors Jason Shawhan, Bilge Ebiri and Mike D'Angelo, who saw it in one of the few cities it played) counter that flaws and all, it's among the year's most ambitious and exciting movies — and deserving of far better than getting dumped and forgotten.
So far, efforts to see Margaret in Nashville have been rebuffed. We'll let you know when that changes.