Margaret is Kenneth Lonergan's raw and affecting character study of Lisa (Anna Paquin), a high school kid of privilege (and of divorce), grappling with guilt after an impulsive act contributes to a fatal accident.

As Lisa struggles to articulate her culpability, and atone for it, this tempestuous 17-year-old sucks her mother, friends, and teachers into and through a long teenage tunnel of hell. Is that a ray of light at the end?

Paquin is electrifying in this 21/2-hour film shot in 2005 and plagued by editing-room creative differences and lawsuits ever since. Like its central character, it is unfinished, a work-in-progress. Yet it is urgently alive with questions of conscience. Lisa sees morality in black and white while most of the adults around her see shades of gray, or are too involved in their own problems to help her work through hers.

Like a physicist precisely charting the dynamics of cause-and-effect, Lonergan (writer/director of You Can Count on Me) shows how Lisa's one small action has multiple, huge consequences on others.

Lonergan, who wrote the screenplay in the wake of the 9/11 attack in New York, frames Lisa as a trauma victim struggling to put herself back together again. She represents the New Yorkers who struggled to do the same in the aftermath of the attacks.

In this version of the film, which has gone from editing room to courtroom and back again, the narrative jumps from heated confrontation to corrosive encounter. These are punctuated by lyrical panoramas of the New York skyline that provide breathing room between confrontations, but otherwise are vestigial.

Besides Paquin, who delivers a once-in-a-lifetime performance as the maddeningly inconsistent Lisa, also wrenchingly fine are Jeannie Berlin as the best friend of the deceased and J. Smith-Cameron as Lisa's actress mother.

Margaret (whic h takes its title from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins about an adolescent grieving her loss of innocence) is not a film for everyone. But its hard look at a young, morally confused woman struggling for clarity is nothing short of riveting.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/