Back to IndieWire

Review: ‘What Maisie Knew’ Is Deeply Affecting, Hard To Watch

Review: 'What Maisie Knew' Is Deeply Affecting, Hard To Watch

It’s often an easy way to
handicap your film, by centering it on a child character and demanding a great
deal from the young actor. By definition, children are not fully-formed people,
but a character in a film must be either fully-formed to yield proper dramatic
results, or so uniquely authentic that it’s like catching chaos in a bottle, an
approach that can create a serious cognitive dissonance when youth collides
with seasoned actors. Remarkably, such chaos is present in young Onata Aprile,
the title character of “What Maisie Knew,” an affecting new contemporary drama
that never once feels phony when the camera is fixed on her face.

The source material for “What
Maisie Knew” is actually a Henry James novel, though directors Scott McGehee
and David Siegel flip it to modern day, most of the early action centered in an
impossibly gorgeous New York apartment. Lifted over the city like a floating
bubble, this spacious home is almost like a kingdom for the precocious child,
who is unfortunately handcuffed to two of the most unfortunate adults in the
world. James’ novel may be an indictment of polite English society, but it’s
difficult not to notice how well it translates to 2013 America, with Maisie
caught between an aging rock star and a dogged, selfish financial manager.

Maisie spends a great deal of
time with mother Susanna, a loving if not exactly doting matriarch who
nonetheless peoples their loft with scores of “industry” types on certain
evenings. Raising a child doesn’t seem to be as hard as maintaining her rock
n roll lifestyle, and her jet-black fingernails, raccoon eye makeup and
casual exasperation suggests the lived-in seriousness of a functioning
alcoholic. Julianne Moore, a fierce actress who nonetheless seems like a dice
roll as to whether she’ll be in-command or off-the-handle, imbues this
characterization with a nasty sense of gravity, particularly when she launches into one of her booming, hallway-filling
expletive-fueled rages.

As the dominant parent, Susanna
buckles down on each line as if she knows it’s something of a bad idea. When
she asks how Maisie’s day at school was, there’s the conflicting sense that she
honestly cares how her little girl is, but is avoiding the acknowledgement that
she disdains school and other parents. The suggestion is that she is an artist
who hasn’t learned to control her filter, so by now Maisie understands that her
mother has something of a monstrous side: Susanna is able to go from zero to “Get-the-fuck-out”
within five seconds, regardless as to whether her daughter is present. Moore’s
skill is in finding the heart between the margins, illustrating a reality that
few would bother to cite about themselves; she loves her daughter, but that
simply cannot get in the way of how she loves herself. As contemporary as “What
Maisie Knew” can be, there isn’t a single moment where Susanna is showing any
home footage of her obviously-smart child, but she seems to have stacks and
stacks of her own smoky-club performances to replay loudly.

Maisie’s father Beale is a
jet-setting businessman; he’s meant to be an art dealer, but he’s clearly one
of those types in movies that endlessly yammers on his phone as if he’s the
most important person in the room. Steve Coogan is a breathlessly talented
comedian with definite chops, but he’s been shorthand for yuppie British scum
in a number of supporting roles by now, and it never gets any more noxious.
Coogan’s great here, of course: Susanna seems more self-destructive than
anything else, while Beale is casually oblivious to even the most obvious signs
of turmoil, placing his work before everything else. It’s not a particularly
showy role, and it’s his scenes with Aprile that hammer home how these two
odious personalities treat their daughter as if she was a prop. McGehee and
Siegel respond in kind by shooting scenes that turn Maisie into a piece of furniture, constantly facing away from the camera, as we’re forced to watch
these adults bicker like children.

The cumulative effect is dramatically
effective to the point of being soul-crushing. Perhaps it’s the wide, trusting
face of Aprile: her Maisie doesn’t act out or throw a tantrum, or even really
cry. Instead, she is caught in scene after scene of being at the mercy of quite
possibly the year’s most ghastly domestic couple, with the camera opting to
include her in every outburst as the unspoken victim of these battles. Soon,
Maisie literally becomes furniture as these jerks separate, but even in the
care of Susanna’s dim but functional new husband (Alexander Skarsgard) and
Beale’s college-age trophy wife (Joanna Vanderham), the specter of these two
selfish twits remain.

At some point, you have to wonder
if it’s all worth it. “What Maisie Knew” is an affecting movie right until the
very end, but is it really worth breaking your heart? Sweet Maisie deserves
better than to be a trinket for these two entitled fools, as would anyone, and
after the eighth or ninth yelling match, it’s clear McGehee and Siegel want you
to be in the eye of the storm, to see and feel each showdown, each cutting
insult, each room-rattling screen from the volcanic Moore and each
passive-aggressive response from the daft Coogan. The James source material
follows Maisie into her teenage years, but the film stops much earlier, and it’s
probably the best choice: you don’t need any parental instincts to want to
reach onscreen and protect this child from such acidic people, and any more of “What
Maisie Knew” would tear your heart clean out. [B+]

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Reviews and tagged , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox