“What Maisie Knew” chronicles the disintegration of a family in present-day New York City as seen through the eyes of the 7-year-old title character (Onata Aprile).
The film opens as Maisie’s mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), carries her to bed.
Susanna asks “What do you want me to sing to you?” and Maisie says “What did you sing to me when I was little?” Susanna eventually grabs a guitar and sings a smoky, stylized rendition of “Rockabye Baby,” and in this small interaction, it’s clear that lullabies are rare and mother and daughter have an unconventional relationship.
The following scenes are loaded with character tells.
During Maisie’s first interaction with her father, Beale (Steve Coogan in the first dramatic role I’ve seen him play), it’s not clear if he’s speaking to his daughter to flirt with her nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham).
Susanna and Beale’s arguments preoccupy them to the point where Maisie fixes her own dinner of sandwich and chips.
As her parents separate, she’s used as fodder in their vicious battle for custody, and both manipulate her for information that could be used against the other. As a viewer, it’s painful to watch this story unfold, but what makes this different from other dysfunctional family dramas is the perspective of its main character.
Maisie views each parental misstep without judgment. (And as a viewer, you’re really judging them.)
Beale tells Maisie he’s moving to London and will see her when he returns for business. Maisie hops on his lap, hugs and kisses him. She waves goodbye simply, unexpectedly and lovingly — without spite or hatred.
This genuine action invokes Beale’s first sign of humanity in this film. Acts like this in “What Maisie Knew” are made more affecting as they’re juxtaposed against adult cruelties. Though not all adults in this film are bitter.
Maisie finds comfort and companionship in her nanny and her new stepfather, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), who is himself also childlike.
In their first one-on-one encounter, he jaywalks onto a Manhattan street as she awaits the crosswalk signal.
“I guess we should wait,” he says. When the light changes, Maisie lifts her hand to his, and in a beautifully nuanced moment, it’s unclear who’s looking after whom. Though, what’s made wildly evident is their protectiveness of each other has begun.
What’s amazing about this film is storytelling through a child’s perspective allows viewers to see flawed humanity as she does — without disdain. Maisie is more forgiving, more respectful and more mature than many of the adults in her life. And what’s so inspiring is her capability of handling life’s curveballs with grace.
Onata Aprile plays Maisie with remarkable candor. Coogan delivers drama with subtle depth (I’d love to see more of this), and I kind of despised Moore, which means she’s executed her role perfectly. The cinematography in wide-reaching shots, vivid and simplistic composition — along with peppered camera placement below and then level with adults — reinforced the heart of this film.
So, what did Maisie know?
Life is complicated, but to her, love is straightforward. And that’s a lesson of which many adult viewers could use a reminder.
Starring: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Onata Aprile, Alexander Skarsgard.
Screenplay: Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright.
Novel: Henry James.
Director: Scott McGehee, David Siegel.
Rated: R for some language.
Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.
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