What Maisie Knew (2013)
Did you know that What Maisie Knew is based on a novel by Henry James that was published in 1897? I sure didn’t, but then again my knowledge of Mr. James is somewhat limited. James’ tale of negligent parents passing off their daughter back and forth was controversial when the novel was first published. Updated to modern-day New York City, seven-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the pawn in her parents’ contentious divorce. Her father, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer who is constantly on his phone and making out-of-country trips. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is an aging lead singer for a 90s alt rock band who also likes to party. Beale remarries Margo (Joanna Vanderham), a young woman who previously served as Maisie’s nanny. Not to be outdone, Susanna remarries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), an affable bartender who’s somewhat clueless around kids. Everyone is trying to navigate the tricky new relationships and what they think is best for Maisie, though Lincoln and Margo seem to be the only ones who actually care.
When it comes to divorce dramas, the easy way is to go big, to ramp up the emotions of such an emotionally distraught experience, and to tip into the overwrought territory of melodrama. I can already imagine the animated shouting fests and crying fests. Then there’s the impulse to go the bitterness route, like 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, where the movie takes a cue from its feuding parents and infuses the film with a dark, overpowering sense of acrimony. I credit directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Bee Season) for making arguably one of the most subdued movies about divorce I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly not flippant in the slightest, treating the subject, and mainly the toxic effect on Maisie, with sincerity and good taste. But as far as overblown shouting matches, they’re kept to a minimum and mostly comprise the first fifteen minutes of the movie, establishing the inevitable divorce of Susanna and Beale. The movie ignores the sensational and focuses on the ordinary, little moments of complete believability that serve to build, like brick by brick, the overall reality of the story. You’ll watch the film and think to yourself that, even with parents with completely outlandishly rich professions, that everything in this movie could realistically happen. Weird to think that James wrote his tale over 100 years ago and yet how relatable his conflicts still are to this day. However, because of this subdued, naturalistic approach, What Maisie Knew can’t quite find a proper ending. The one presented seems a tad too pat and tidy for this movie. It almost approaches a“happy ending,” though not quite. Still, knowing how thick-skulled both Susanna and Beale are, it’s hard to think that they will ever come to their senses and do what’s in the best interest of Maisie.
This can be an uncomfortable movie to watch because Maisie’s mom and dad are so destructively neglectful and self-involved. There’s a perverse rubbernecking draw to seeing the antics of truly awful parenting. You’ll find yourself getting very mad at how terrible these people are at being human beings. Susanna and Beale interrogate their daughter for ammo they can use against the other, twisting and manipulating the kid that we wonder if either truly cares about. Dad’s always full of excuses and mom’s looking to flee from responsibility at a moment’s notice, dumping her daughter on her latest boyfriend. You’ll find yourself easily sympathizing with Lincoln and Margo, the two people who love Maisie most and would make the best parents for her. I began rooting that they just abduct Maisie and start a new life as a family in a different country. The unchecked narcissism of both Susanna and Beale could serve as a clinical study. It’s a wonder that Maisie seems like a bright, playful, and relatively normal kid. For now.
Another aspect of McGehee and Siegel’s joint direction that I really enjoyed was how the movie takes on the perspective of little Maisie; she is our eyes and ears, and often the camera framing will instinctively mirror her own point of view, cutting off adults. It’s an interesting visual approach but it also further tethers us to this girl, forcing us to think even deeper about Maisie’s perspective, and how she’s interpreting the angry words. I suppose there is a valid argument to be had that a seven-year-old child is going to be a rather limited perspective on such a contentious conflict. There’s also the nature of Maisie. She’s a relatively quiet child, given to poking her head around corners and staring with those big glassy eyes of hers. Given the fact that she’s a child, and processing a painful life experience, don’t expect her to divulge too much about her thoughts and feelings. She’s an opaque presence and I realize that that can get frustrating for some. She’s not the kind of kid that’s going to burst into tantrums. This girl is internalizing all the pain and confusion. Having a passive prism for your movie might be akin to telling a love story from the point of view of a potted fern. Literally anchoring the camerawork to Maisie (I don’t want to oversell this as if it’s a stylistic gimmick) forces us to constantly think of every action through its impact upon Maisie. It’s not exactly a coming of age or loss of innocence tale but more a combination of the two.
If you’re going to have a child be the star of your movie, you better choose wisely. I’ve found that as I grow older I have less tolerance for poor child actors. Perhaps it’s my inner Scrooge. Good thing that little Aprile (Yellow) is so effortlessly heartbreaking as she tries to find her way amidst her changing home life. One day she has a mom and dad, then she’s splitting time, then her daddy has a new mommy, who happens to be her old nanny, and then mommy has a new husband as well (Susanna admits she got remarried simply to improve her court standing). Aprile nicely underplays her character’s innate vulnerability while still reminding you of her youth. She’ll get scared and ask to go home, crying alone in her bed, and your heart will ache. I cannot say whether the strength of Aprile’s performance lies more with her legitimate skills as an actress, good direction, or the general reticence of the character, and thus the lesser demands for a child.
Moore (The Kids Are All Right) and Coogan (The Trip) give surprisingly textured performances, at least more so than the opening fifteen minutes would have you believe. They can both be monstrous and callously indifferent to their daughter’s well being, but as the movie concludes, each one of them has a small moment where they realize the damage they are inflicting upon their child, how poor a parent they have been (Susanna even lashes out at Lincoln’s encouragement to Maisie as “undermining her as a parent”). It’s much more than I was anticipating and both actors do good work at being unlikable without going overboard. Fans of TV’s True Blood might just swoon a little harder thanks to Skarsgard’s good-natured, humble, and mildly affecting performance as a man who becomes profoundly attached to Maisie. He may not know what he’s doing but isn’t that parenting as a whole? Skarsgard and the charming Vanderham make a great onscreen pair and their genuine affection for Maisie provide the most uplifting moments.
When it comes to parenting, there are no magic instructions to insure a responsible, loving, thoughtful, and independent human being. It’s a leap of blind faith. However, it’s much easier to predict the events that can screw up an impressionable child (do not misconstrue this as my declaration that children of divorce are, at heart, broken somehow). The thought of collateral damage is fresh in our minds as we track little Maisie trying to survive the reach of her terrible parents. The terse arguments can be painful but even more painful is the overall negligence of her rich and mostly absent, self-involved parents. What Maisie Knew isn’t a downer of a movie and its subject matter is given proper seriousness and reflection. You’ll likely cringe at points, may even grumble under your breath, but in the end it ends on a hopeful note, the possibility that Maisie, under the right guidance, could turn out to be the bright kid we see glimpses of at her school. There’s something quite moving about the resiliency of a child. This is, of course, just one interpretation of the movie, but What Maisie Knew is an emotionally engaging, subdued, sincere, and poignant film that trades on naturalistic waves of human interaction rather than cartoonish bluster, all the while forgoing cheap sentimentality or unpleasant bitterness. For the performances, the deft handling of sensitive material, and the quality direction, give What Maisie Knew a chance when able.
Nate’s Grade: B+