Monday, May 13, 2013

The Big Review: "What Maisie Knew"

Julianne Moore with her possession, ah, daughter (Onata Aprile) in What Maisie Knew
I can't think of a better movie to celebrate Mother's Day. Wait, that's not right.

This review previously appeared in the May issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. Yo, Philly: The flick opens on May 24.


The six-year-old endures the shouting and the name-calling. It goes on all day, so there’s no choice. Her options are few. She can’t leave. She can’t fight. So she observes and catalogues the slights.

She looks up a lot, like she’s praying for a reprieve.

What Maisie Knew, directed by veterans Scott McGehee and David Siegel, is a stirring examination of a child stuck in purgatory. It captures the knee-high world of its title character (Onata Aprile) while illuminating the flaws of adults.

Maisie’s parents, Susana (the indispensible Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), are too busy engaging in a non-stop verbal battle to pay much attention to their daughter. The words no longer impact Maisie, who just makes a snack or grabs a tip for the pizza guy while mom and dad shout through closed doors. The one stable adult presence is Margot the nanny (Joanna Vanderham), whose warmth and enthusiasm provides an umbrella from the storm inside.

Predictably, Susana and Beale part ways. Things, however, get worse for the most mature member of the family. Susana, a fading rock star, is so consumed with getting custody that she hastily marries nice guy bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) to score points with the judge. It’s the desperate whine of an overgrown child who wants her doll back, and matrimony doesn’t quell Susana’s shameless narcissism. When Lincoln bonds with Maisie at her recording session, a hurt Susana intercepts the attention and asks Maisie to join her in the booth. Beale, concerned about his career momentum, marries Margot after a courtship of about five minutes. (Guess the maid was off that day.)

Susana and Beale’s new spouses learn very quickly that they are around to do the unpleasant work: pick-ups and drop offs and making meals and ostensibly raising Maisie. Margot and Lincoln, who don’t treat Maisie like an adorable prisoner shuffled between luxurious New York City confinements, grow to love the child, and she them.   

Siegel and McGehee, working from Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne’s screenplay, proceed with no preciousness and tons of assurance. By having every scene focus on or around Aprile, who acts like a kid instead of a kid actor, we get a merciless, impartial judge who doesn’t miss a thing. A child doesn’t care about limitations or intentions. That’s adult stuff. Results matter. That observational frame means the filmmakers don’t have to traffic in obviousness, and we can see the characters’ shortcomings as flaws, not cartoonish traits. Aided by Moore and Coogan’s fine, measured work, Susana and Beale’s biggest crime is that they love themselves more than their daughter. Meanwhile Skarsgård and Vanderham’s ease with each other tells you more about their burgeoning relationship than any monologue could.

What Maisie Knew doesn’t need to shout. It lays out the action and trusts you to put everything together. Still, there were times watching when I wished the movie, an update of Henry James’ novel, were more cutting and more obvious. Too many couples are in Susana and Beale’s situation, and they got for the same set of stupid reasons. The baby was a must-have accessory or an item to be checked off the “I can have it all!” checklist. Or maybe, consumed by disappointment and unmet expectations, they thought a kid would fill the void or make them better people.

Rants rarely make for good movies, and the message of the last, lovely scene in this quiet gem is, in its own way, very loud: The problems of adults belong to no one else. A child’s only responsibility is to be a child. [R]

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