What Maisie Knew (2012)

What Maisie KnewWritten by: Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, based on the novel by Henry James

Directed by: Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Parenting requires strength, selflessness, and stability. Even when life is excruciatingly difficult, children’s needs have to be put first, and they need to be protected.

Unfortunately, most of us come into the job confused, seriously flawed, and struggling with our own maturity, and we screw up. A lot. We strive to learn and grow, and we pray that our kids will someday make enough money to pay their own therapy bills.

Perhaps to offer some compensation, nature makes loving our children as natural as breathing. Not ordinary love, but wild, intense, heart-wrenching love that compels you to throw yourself in front of a bus, if necessary, to protect your child. It prods you to change your life, often leading you down paths you didn’t expect.

Then again, some parents are incapable of love.

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Caught in the middle of her parents’ tumultuous break-up, six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) adapts to moving back and forth between her narcissistic, self-absorbed parents. Her rock star mom Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art-dealer father Beale (Steve Coogan), immersed in their own lives and careers, are unreliable in keeping their parts of the joint custody agreement. Materially, Maisie’s life is an embarrassment of riches, but she is adrift without stable care. So it falls to her parents’ new spouses, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham) to try to look after her.

This is a beautiful film, showing us Maisie’s life through her own eyes. It is carefully observed and very real. It’s often infuriating and painful to watch, yet it avoids becoming overly dramatic or sentimental. It trusts the quality of its storytelling and this young actress’s beautifully natural performance, letting us see the world through Maisie’s eyes as she begins to lose her infinitely trusting quality and see her parents as they really are, without losing her boundless capacity for love.

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Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan give excellent performances. Moore had me glued to the screen with her portrayal of Maisie’s narcissistic, somewhat volatile mother, who doesn’t balk at manipulating her daughter to stick it to her ex. While more restrained, Beale is equally self-obsessed and incapable of real love.

It is to the credit of these two performers that while I loathed their characters, I did not dismiss them completely, and at times I felt more compassion and sadness for them than disdain. In one scene, Beale says goodbye to Maisie, in a cab, and we see a subtle shift in his face. For a moment, he is seeing himself as he really is, and it’s painful to watch. Susanna has a longer, more dramatic moment of clarity near the end of the movie when she realizes she has forfeited her daughter’s trust and devotion. We see that she loves her child as much as she is capable of loving anyone, and her pain is genuine.

Skarsgård and Vanderham are also terrific, portraying compassionate people caught in a wildly dysfunctional situation and floundering as they step into parental roles they didn’t anticipate. The awkward, affectionate relationship blossoming between Maisie and Lincoln (Skarsgård) is a joy to watch.

What Maisie Knew is a well-crafted drama about the vulnerability of a child at the mercy of parents who are ill-equipped to nurture her, beginning to see through the veneer of superficial love. While, at times, it difficult to watch, it’s well worth it.

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