Title: What Maisie Knew
Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Major Players: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Onata Aprile
Out of Five? 4.5
Not everybody is comfortable with children, whether it’s at home, at work or watching them on the screen. So a film about a six year old caught up in the wreckage of a custody battle could have limited appeal – more so if the child is especially appealing and knowing. It’s not every actor who wants to share the screen with a child either. We all know the saying. So hats off to the quartet of grown-ups who’ve thrown caution to the wind in the domestic drama What Maisie Knew.
When Maisie’s parents split up, they go to court to sort out custody. Her father wins, although she is allowed time with her mother as well. Shortly after the split, her father marries her young nanny and, at much the same time, her mother weds a younger barman. And Maisie finds herself increasingly split between her lives with her actual parents and people to whom she is unrelated.
We see the whole story through Maisie’s eyes – a bold choice by directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel as it means they are reliant on the audience to piece the clues together to get the full picture that Maisie can never understand. The result is tender, compassionate and, at times, heart breaking – even if the latter stages of the film are just a wee bit predictable.
It’s also a thought-provoking film about how becoming a parent doesn’t automatically make you good with children. There’s no doubt that both fading rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and wheeler-dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) love their child. It’s clear to see that they do, but the trouble is that they love themselves more. Moore is excellent in the unflattering role of the mother who puts her career, and herself, first and believes showering her daughter with presents makes up for her absence. She even justifies her marriage by telling Maisie, “I married him for you.” No pressure, then. Coogan is also impressive as her slightly seedy partner, who alternates between thinking Maisie needs him to entertain her all the time and speaking to her in language that’s far too complex for her to understand – and then being baffled when she doesn’t grasp what he’s saying.
All the talk about the film, however, surrounds the performance of Onata Aprile as Maisie. It’s another bold choice by the directors and they’ve done a wonderful job in extracting such a natural, unaffected performance from her at such a tender age. But that wouldn’t have happened without some talent on her part as well. It’s a remarkably unsentimental performance that nonetheless tugs at the heartstrings.
Ultimately, Maisie gets her happy ending, with two people much younger than her parents but mature enough to know how to give her the time and stability that she needs. The only weakness of the film is its predictable and somewhat soft resolution. But it is understandable. Anything more pessimistic would have been out of kilter with the film. Despite her in-built resilience, Maisie’s younger years could have been enough to make her an emotional mess: at least now she has a chance to escape that.
What Maisie Knew is an adult look at parenting and childhood, seen through the child’s eyes. Given that we’re still in the summer blockbuster season (ironically, one of those also stars Coogan), its distribution is sparse, but it is certainly worth tracking down. Failing that, it should be a compulsory feature at parenting classes.