What a glorious mess! Kenneth Lonergan's long-delayed follow-up to 2000's revered brother-sister drama You Can Count On Me finally arrives in theaters with little fanfare and the bitter air of failure around it. Don't believe the scuttlebutt: The writer-director's sprawling look at the effect a gruesome accident has on Manhattan teen Lisa Cohen (Paquin) bursts with ambition and specificity in its novelistic, social-drama narrative. Our attention is grabbed right from the gorgeous slo-mo credits sequence of numerous Gothamites going about their day---not obliviously, but more in a state of expectantly suspended animation. There's palpable unease in the air (very potently post-9/11), and even as Lonergan sets the stage in a few mundane subsequent scenes---Lisa discussing grades with an instructor (Damon) and flirting bashfully with a classmate---this strange sense of tension never dissipates.
Then the accident occurs---a woman, played with one-scene wonder by Allison Janney, gets hit by a bus---and Lisa's life, as well as the movie containing her, goes disturbingly, brilliantly off the rails. The next two hours are the sort of no-holds-barred psychodrama that John Cassavetes specialized in: Lisa pinballs between raw emotional states while a number of vivid supporting characters, from Damon's pushover schoolteacher to a brash Upper West Sider superbly played by Elaine May's daughter Jeannie Berlin, circle her like moths to a frenzied flame. Paquin deserves the highest accolades for her ferociously committed performance, turning what could have been a privileged prep-school archetype into a scorching depiction of adolescent grief. And though not all of Lonergan's conceits work on a scene-by-scene basis (an upper-crust womanizer played by Jean Reno skews a bit too close to caricature), the film has a cumulative power---solidified by a devastating opera-house finale---that's staggering. This is frayed-edges filmmaking at its finest.