What Maisie Knew – Monday, May 13 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. When I first heard of this film I thought there was something familiar about the title. Then I found out it was based on a Henry James novel published in 1897, which I was aware of, but had not read. The title is intriguing and feels rather modern for a book that came out 116 years ago. I was curious to see how this source material would be adapted to the present day. After seeing the film, I checked out a synopsis online and saw that the premise of the book is followed fairly closely, though James’ novel covers at least 10 years while the film seems to show us less than a year.
Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the six-year-old daughter of Susanna (Julianne Moore), a fading rock star, and Beale (Steve Coogan), an art dealer. To say that these parents are neglectful and self-absorbed is an extreme understatement. Susanna comes off as a narcissistic monster, while Beale just seems very weak, distracted, a child himself. They both seem to love Maisie, in their way, but neither is able to actually be a parent. I think that Susanna, especially, sees Maisie as a possession rather than a person with needs and feelings. Maisie basically has to take care of herself and find her own way, often with Susanna and Beale screaming at each other in the background. I was particularly touched by a scene showing Maisie home from school, in the kitchen making herself a peanut butter sandwich with potato chips on the side. You can tell that she’s done it many times before. Maisie is constantly let down by these people, but never acts out or throws a tantrum. She just endures it and moves on.
When Susanna and Beale angrily break up at the beginning of the film, Maisie becomes the pawn in an acrimonious custody battle. It turns out they weren’t actually married, so there’s no divorce. Beale marries Maisie’s nanny, Margo; then Susanna marries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender she knows from the club scene, apparently in an effort to show the court they can each provide “stable” home environments for Maisie. We see all this through Maisie’s eyes, so we only get bits and pieces of what Susanna and Beale are doing. The title is, after all, What Maisie Knew. The film maintains her point of view throughout, though we have a more objective view and understanding of what she “knows.”
The word “heartbreaking” has been used to describe What Maisie Knew in reviews I’ve seen, and it is that, for sure, but also more. The film creates a great deal of empathy for Maisie, largely due to the performance of Onata Aprile, who is a wonder, every bit as amazing as Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). The question is how a person like Maisie could even exist as she does, given the awesome dysfunction of her mother and father. It’s a mystery. Maisie seems thoughtful and aware, but she’s not a precocious movie kid, full of smart cracks and putdowns, which is a relief. As Margo says to Lincoln at one point, “She’s a child.”
Maisie is very much at risk, which makes the film painful to watch and anxiety-inducing at times. But what provides a strong core of hope for me, and makes this much more than the sad story of a neglected child, is the love that develops between Maisie and Lincoln as he becomes more involved in her life and welfare. This is the heart of the movie for me. The chemistry between Onata Aprile and Alexander Skarsgård is what really sells this. I first became aware of Skarsgård in David Simon’s Generation Kill series on HBO in 2008, and then as the vampire Eric Northman in True Blood, also on HBO. He was excellent in the feature Disconnect, which I saw earlier this year. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen him convey the depth of feeling he does in What Maisie Knew. In the following interview conducted at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival, the affection they have for one another is obvious.
What Maisie Knew is well directed by Scott MacGehee and David Siegel. I’ve seen only the first two of their four previous features, Suture (1993) and The Deep End (2001). Based on Maisie, I’d now like to see their subsequent films, Bee Season (2005) and Uncertainty (2009). They bring a delicate touch to What Maisie Knew, as well as a sense of mystery and wonder, without becoming sentimental. The emotions the film brings out are well earned. It’s sometimes more fun watching stuff blow up, but that seldom makes me feel as good as this. – Ted Hicks