I finally got a chance last night to watch that DVD I was handed of Kenneth Lonergan‘s Margaret, and I now completely understand and agree with the rave notices it’s been getting. New Yorkers are urged to see it at the Cinema Village, where it’ll be as of Friday, 12.23.

It’s a bit lumpy and awkward here and there (although not as much as I’d been led to believe) and perhaps a wee bit too long, but Margaret — shot in ’05 and stuck in some kind of post-production indecision and lawsuit hell for five years after that — is smart and brave and ambitious, and made of the passionate stuff that matters.

It’s a Manhattan-set moral tale, occuring a year or so after 9/11, about a curious, somewhat bullheaded, occasionally agitated teen named Lisa Cohen (a fierce and emotionally brazen Anna Paquin), and the different ways her life is stirred and churned up as a result of her having been at least partly responsible for a fatal bus accident.

It’s clearly the fault of the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), but Lisa, not wanting to destroy the driver’s ability to care for his family, lies to the cops about the circumstances, telling them that the victim (Allison Janey) crossed against a red light. But then she has an attack of conscience and hooks up with Janey’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin, giving a tangy, abrasive performance) about a possible civil lawsuit against the MTA. This leads to scenes with investigators and lawyers with a side benefit of three standout supporting performances from Stephen Adly Guirgis, Michael Ealy and Jonathan Hadary. Subplots involving sex and boyfriends and teachers and a mother conflict are threaded in and result in a kind of catch-as-catch-can tapestry deal.

Lisa’s actress mother is played by J. Smith-Cameron, and her boyfriend, a well-mannered European with an anti-Semitic undercurrent, is portrayed by Jean Reno.

Good and believable supporting performances also come from Matt Damon, Rosemarie DeWitt, Lonergan himself (as Lisa’s dad), Matthew Broderick and Kieran Culkin.

Is each and every Margaret moment successful? No, but most of them are. On top of which I’d much rather watch a hit-and-misser with some truly alive portions and maybe two or three so-so moments than a polished but consistently mediocre middlebrow thing.

Fox Searchlight opened and closed Margaret last September, and then along came efforts a month ago (prinicipally Jaime Christley‘s Margaret peitition) to persuade FS to re-issue it or at least provide screeners. And now, to repeat, the comes a new booking at Manhattan’s Cinema Village on Friday, 12.23.

Shame on those Rotten Tomatoes critics who called it a “mess” and a “sophomore slump” film, etc. Agreed, it doesn’t move along at a crisp pace with the usual smooth assurance, etc. But it’s so smart and searching and penetrating in so many ways great and small that the stylistic, cosmetic stuff shouldn’t matter. Would these same critics have dismissed On The Waterfront if it was too long and had been clumsily edited with one or two needless subplots, even with the classic stuff intact? If a film has really good material then it has really good material, and a good critic should always point that out, even if there are structural issues here and there.

The only thing that doesn’t quite work in the beginning is the fact that Ruffalo’s bus driver is wearing a cowboy hat (which no real-life MTA operator would ever be caught dead with on the job) as well as the cutting of the accident scene. There’s also a sex-with-Damon scene followed by Paquin going up to Damon and a woman colleague and saying she’s getting an abortion. Lonergan could have lost those two scenes with no harm to the film or Pacquin’s performance or anything.

The Margaret title alludes to a young woman described in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem called “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.” The poem, which is about facing up to the inevitable losses and ruinations of life, is read aloud during Lisa’s drama (or English literature) class by Broderick’s teacher character.

“Now no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow’s spr√≠ngs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.”