What Maisie Knew

A- Family drama

  • Written by Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright
  • Based on the novel by Henry James
  • Directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel

Full disclosure: I’m inclined to go easy on movies where a very likeable, good-looking, and essentially decent character has the first name Lincoln. Those of you named Bob or John probably won’t understand.

What Maisie Knew follows the aftereffects of a very angry, messy, and vindictive divorce between two selfish jerks who deserve each other. But their young daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), deserves and requires something much better than either of them.

As the title suggests, the film tells its story from Maisie’s point of view. We see nothing that she doesn’t see, or hear anything she doesn’t hear. Of course, we understand what’s going on better than she does. But the subjective style allows us to further empathize with this innocent human being so utterly devoid of power.

Julianne Moore plays Maisie’s monster of a mother. An aging rock star who hasimage probably seen better days, she’s incapable of relating to another human being as anything other than an extension of herself. She acts out her love for her daughter–in the opening scene she sings her to sleep–but she ripples with jealousy if the girl bonds with anyone else. She verbally abuses her husband within earshot of their child.

The makeup and costume department did everything they could to age Moore. Gone is the still-beautiful middle-aged mother of The Kids are All Right. Here, Moore looks old and worn out, as if she’d taken too many drugs, smoked too many cigarettes, and allowed her fear and anger to wear her down.

Maisie’s art dealer father (Steve Coogan) seems almost as bad as her mother. Perhaps he’s just as horrible, but he has less screen time  in which to make a bad impression. He’s certainly selfish and self-centered. One suspects that he fights for joint custody not so much out of love for his daughter as punishment for his ex-wife.

Both mother and father marry younger lovers, not so much on a rebound as to give them greater leverage in court. The father marries Maisie’s nanny (Joanna Vanderham), which is a step in the right direction. After all, she already has a close and loving relationship with Maisie, and she has considerable childcare skills.

But it’s the mother’s new husband, the aforementioned Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), who has the most interesting and positive character arc. A bartender who improbably finds himself married to a rock star, he’s initially uninterested in his new stepdaughter. But as his irresponsible wife leaves him with more and more of the parenting responsibilities, he grows into the role, becoming the loving adult that Maisie so desperately needs.

Everyone in the cast is spot on, but I’d be unfair not to offer specific praise for the young star. At no point was I reminded that Onata Aprile was a child performer. She was, quite simply, a little girl caught between very bad parents, finding joy wherever she could. She carried the film.

The ending wraps things up a little too neatly, but that’s really my only complaint. This should be seen by everyone contemplating parenthood.

I saw What Maisie Knew at a press screening prior to its Bay Area premiere at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival.