What Maisie Knew is one of the most fascinating and original cinematic portrayals of a child living through their parents’ divorce ever made. Based on the novel by Henry James, it updates the events of the story to the modern day world of New York City and puts us right into the mindset of young Maisie (Onata Aprile) as she quickly becomes the victim of her parents’ selfish desires. While we know that children are the ones who are hurt most by divorce, the fascinating thing about this film is how this little girl becomes even more mature than the two adults who should be doing a far better job of raising her.
On one hand, there’s no doubt that Maisie has a mother and father who love her dearly. But on the other hand there’s no also no doubt that they are incredibly lousy parents. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is an aging rock star who throws drunken parties as if she were still in college, and her dad Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer who is constantly distracted by the next big sale he’s on the verge of making. Both of them have failed at being adults and are so caught up in their own lifestyles that they fail to grasp how truly neglectful they are of daughter’s needs.
Once Susanna and Beale divorce, they start relationships with people much younger than they are. Beale ends up marrying Maisie’s nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who cares the world about Maisie and is there for her whenever she needs to be. As for Susanna, she ends up marrying Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender/musician whose introduction into Maisie’s life is highly awkward as he has to convince her school principal that he’s this kid’s new stepdad. From there, Maisie finds herself being used as a pawn by her parents to get back at one another, but she also sees that Margo and Lincoln are two people she can really look up to in the midst of all this dysfunction.
What is so fascinating about What Maisie Knew is how wonderfully complex all these characters are. No one is completely good or bad, and they are all deeply flawed either by their own doing or because the world has helped make them the way they are today. Moore and Coogan make you believe that they care deeply about their daughter, but not enough to get past their own arrested development.
Moore remains one of the best actresses working today as she clues us in to the insecurities that are eating away at Susanna, and she makes it to where you cannot complete despise her for utter selfishness. Coogan, in a rare dramatic turn, is wonderful in showing how ridiculously aloof Beale is in trying to get all the crazy parts of his life under control.
The big surprise though is how well drawn out the secondary characters of Margo and Lincoln are as well. When Lincoln gets introduced into the movie, you would think that he would just screw up Maisie even more, but she turns out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Skarsgård is wonderful as we watch his character essentially grow up with Maisie and become the adult he was always meant to be. Like Susanna, he’s a bit immature about where he’s at in life, but being around this little girl makes him see just what he’s capable of as a human being.
Vanderham is also a terrific presence as Margo, who is also caught in the middle of Maisie’s parents’ divorce, and it leaves her in an agonizing state of conflict as her life is thrown into complete upheaval. As she deals with frustrations that no one should ever have to deal with, being there for Maisie helps center her as she is not blind to the damage her parents are inflicting on this poor girl. Vanderham has previously appeared in several British television series, and this marks her first real exposure to American audiences. Here’s hoping that we see more of her in the future.
But while the adult actors have top billing in What Maisie Knew, it should be no secret that the movie really belongs to young Aprile. She is simply extraordinary as Maisie as she gets us to be so deeply invested in what this girl goes through from start to finish. Aprile gives the character a tremendous strength and perception that few other actresses her age could have pulled off. By the movie’s end, she makes you cheer Maisie on as she comes to see through her parents’ selfish and dysfunctional behavior in a way neither of them can see themselves.
What Maisie Knew was directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the same duo who helmed The Deep End with Tilda Swinton and Bee Season with Richard Gere. Both do an amazing job of putting you right into the mindset of a young girl who is trying to make sense of what her parents are going through. Not once does the film deviate from Maisie’s point of view, and the filmmakers get you very caught up in all the strange and scary things going through her mind. They get are able to bring fantastic performances out of each cast member and they also make you remember what it was like being a child whether your parents got divorced or not.
This is truly one of the most intelligent movies to come out so far in 2013, and here’s hoping that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of all the other independent films and summer blockbusters that will be opening alongside it. What Maisie Knew never feels like an emotionally manipulative experience, and each emotion you get out of it does ring true. As I said before though, the one thing that really makes this film so incredible is Onata Aprile, who gives one of the most remarkable performances you could ever hope to see from a child actor. The movie is worth seeing for her performance alone, but there’s still a whole host of other things to enjoy in this remarkable and touching film.