What Maisie Knew is the story of a child trying to make sense of a grown up world that seems to be giving up on her. She has to stand and watch through the crack in the door, or through an open window as her parents separate, leaving her stuck in the middle trying to understand what’s gone wrong. You begin to wonder if Maisie (Onate Aprile) blames herself. It’s not an easy thing to watch at times, but What Maisie Knew is nonetheless engaging and touching.
Maisie is an adorable pixie of a girl living with her parents Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan). They fight a lot, forcing Maisie to retreat into her own self contained world. She’s certainly very street smart – we see her paying for a pizza during an early scene when mummy and daddy are too busy fighting to even notice the door bell. The camera gently remains focused on her as she watches her parents’ marriage fall apart. They both fight for custody and make out that they want what’s best for her. This doesn’t stop them forgetting to pick her up from school, or allowing her to walk through a drug and alcohol soaked party. Deep down Maisie doesn’t matter to Susanna and Beale. The only thing that interests them is one-upmanship.
Susanna is a bad mother. She’s a rock musician who’s seen her career take a massive dive over the past few years. She wants to record new songs, get back out on tour, and generally refuel her professional life. She’s very possessive and needy around Maisie, to such an extent that she actually gets angry when she doesn’t feature very much in a story her daughter wrote. She spends a lot of her time talking to her daughter like she’s a teenager, leaving Maisie to just stare blankly at her.
Beale is a bad father. He’s a distant and occasionally callous person who disappears for long periods for overseas work that we never fully understand. At one point it looks like he might be an art dealer who can only seem to find work in London. He makes a lot of jokes, particularly about Susanna, and Maisie just stares at him blankly. Even though he’s lived with Maisie for her entire life up until this point, he doesn’t seem to know anything about her. He talks to her like an adult, and then sighs heavily when she doesn’t understand.
With both her parents fighting over her in a petty self-centred battle, Maisie is able to find happiness with her parents’ new partners. Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) is Susanna’s new husband who has a night job working in a bar. He’s a little nervous around Maisie to begin with, but his heart is in the right place. He keeps her happy and entertained while she’s staying with Susanna, who’s too busy recording a new song. He’s almost a little too perfect to be a believable character, but the chemistry between Skarsgard and Aprile is beautiful. Their bond takes time to grow, rather than just forcing itself into the story.
Beale’s new partner Margo (Joanna Vanderham) is the nanny that he and Susanna had hired when they were still together. We can see that Maisie loves Margo and is very comfortable around her, no doubt because she represents the last piece of the loving home she once had. She’s a caring person who only has Maisie in mind, even when Beale goes away on another mysterious business trip leaving her alone with his child. She’s neglected, but she doesn’t let Maisie see that. Instead she lavishes her with attention to try and keep both their minds off the increasingly absent Beale.
What Maisie Knew is certainly a triumph of acting. Julianne Moore and newcomer Onata Aprile in particularly give heartbreakingly natural performances. Steve Coogan is fairly convincing as the deviant and slightly creepy Beale who can still be charming when he wants to be. All the performances are so slick and natural it almost feels like they filmed without a script. Some scenes are very difficult to watch, in particular when Susanna decides to change the locks and leave Beale homeless. The estranged couple shout at each other through the door in an alarming moment as Maisie watches on. It comes out of nowhere because we’re looking at the world through the eyes of a child. What kind of child in a comfortable home with parents could predict a horror like this?
In contrast we also get moments involving Lincoln and Margo which are genuinely touching. The very simple scene involving them both playing Monopoly late at night with Maisie has to be one of the most beautiful movie moments this year. What Maisie Knew is an interesting film with interesting ideas that doesn’t feel the need to over sentimentalise things to make it’s audience care. It knows that we’re all hoping that Maisie is able to find the tenderness and hope that she’s looking for.
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