Directed by: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Premise: A young girl (Onata Aprile) is caught in the middle of an ugly custody battle.
What Works: Films about children and their parents tend to idealize childhood and parenthood. The conventional wisdom in motion pictures is that producing a child automatically redeems the parents and makes them more sensitive and less selfish. In that respect, What Maisie Knew subversively bucks the trend. This is a movie in which people who were always selfish and stupid continue on in that manner and the refusal to indulge the fantasy of parental redemption gives this movie an edge. The implicit question at the center of What Maisie Knew is how a disruptive and chaotic home life impacts a child. The filmmakers set about exploring that earnestly and admirably they don’t run directly to the conclusion that the child is instantly ruined by difficult circumstances. Instead, the film carefully documents Maisie’s experience and the filmmakers smartly design the film to show the events from her point of view. The camera is frequently placed at her level and the action unfolds from her perspective. That point of view is enough to insert the viewer into her physical space. The film has a challenge that its makers can never sufficiently overcome which is to place the viewer in the headspace of a seven year old girl. Cinema, at least realistic cinema, is unequipped to accomplish that but shooting from Maisie’s point of view is enough to make us witness to the events from her perspective. What Maisie Knew has exceptional performances by all of the lead actors but the one that is most extraordinary is given by child actor Onata Aprile as Maisie. The filmmakers do not make her precocious in the way kids in the movies are often portrayed. As the title of the movie suggests, there is a question of how much Maisie realizes about what is going on in the lives of those around her and Aprile’s performance keeps that question at the forefront of the movie. What Maisie Knew also stars Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as the biological parents. Their behavior is frequently cringe inducing but both actors throw themselves into despicability in the way good actors are willing to do.
What Doesn’t: The purpose of What Maisie Knew is muddled. The movie starts as a sketch of a child’s experience in the midst of a messy divorce and her chaotic home life afterward. This is done very well but in the second half the filmmakers transition away from the child and shift the point of view to her step-parents, played by Joanna Vanderham and Alexander Skarsgård. The story of their relationship with Maisie is an interesting one and the love they show for her is often a relief from the cruelty and callousness of Maisie’s biological parents but it is also confusing because the movie changes what it’s about in the middle of the story. Vanderham and Skarsgård are good together on screen and their watchability makes up for many of the problems of the transition. But the picture runs into further problems in the ending. In the final portion of What Maisie Knew the girl and her step-parents retreat to a beach house but who owns this house or what future she or they will have together is uncertain. There is a difference between an ambiguous ending and an incomplete conclusion and unfortunately the finale of What Massie Knew is in the latter category. The picture ends abruptly and it does not bring the story to a sufficient finale. That is partly the point and the refusal to give Maisie a conclusive and happy ending plays into the subversive quality of this movie. But the filmmakers are unable to bring What Maisie Knew to a satisfying close.
DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, and trailers.
Bottom Line: What Maisie Knew is a flawed movie and it isn’t always pleasant to watch but there is a lot of truth in its unpleasantness and ambiguity and even in some of its mistakes. The picture is challenging but in ways that make it impressive.
Episode: #484 (March 30, 2014)