‘What Maisie Knew’: A Domestic Drama Unfolds Through A Child’s Eyes

Loren DiBlasi

 

Sadly, there are few children today who cannot relate, at least somewhat, to the plight of little Maisie Beale, a precious seven-year-old caught in the middle of her parents’ bitter custody battle. Unfortunately for What Maisie Knew, this fact doesn’t make the film any more relatable-- or comprehensible.

 

It’s hard to tell if Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s contemporary re-imagining of Henry James’ 1897 novel is too ambitious, or not ambitious enough; either way, the promising film features unavoidable plot holes large enough to fall straight into. There’s no question that Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan are both superb actors, but as little Maisie’s inept, spoiled parents, not even their combined power can fill these empty characterizations.

 

Moore is Susanna, a wealthy, aging New York musician who clearly isn’t fit to parent her daughter’s pet turtle, let alone Maisie herself. Examples of Susanna’s most maddening moments include throwing an all-night rager during one of Maisie’s sleepovers, abandoning her daughter at a bar, and marrying a complete stranger in retaliation for her ex’s sudden nuptials. What makes Susanna a pointless character isn’t her reckless behavior, though, but the endless one-note song she sings. Why is Susanna the worst mother alive? Is there drug or alcohol addiction involved? Could she be haunted by the lingering memory of abuse from her past? As viewers, we wait for answers to these questions, but unfortunately, they never come. “A long time ago, I was just like you,” Susanna tearfully tells Maisie near the film’s end, which is an obvious attempt at explaining her never-ending circus of poor parenting choices. It’s just one line, and it just doesn’t cut it.

 

Without a doubt, Maisie is the best part of What Maisie Knew, the real reason why the film is worth watching. Portrayed by Onata Aprile, she skillfully evokes empathy with every puppy-dog face, but never verges on over-the-top sentimentality. Watching this child get shuffled from one pointless, selfish adult to the next is truly heart-breaking, and the camera offers many shots from a child’s point-of-view, bringing us straight to the center of her lonely little world. Each time Maisie falls in love with a new parental figure -- first her mom and dad, then her nanny-turned-stepmother (Joanna Vanderham) and tall, handsome stepfather (Alexander Skarsgård)-- they’re swiftly removed from her life. It’s hard to imagine that Maisie could ever grow up to become a normal, functioning human being, but still, there’s an ever-present smile on her innocent face.

 

What Maisie Knew does an excellent job of pulling us into the grasp of its story and keeping us there, if only because we’re hoping that a happy ending is never too far away for our beloved heroine. Instead, what we get is a fairytale finale that’s almost too happy, too didactic to feel even the slightest bit real.

 

What’s perplexing is that the authorities are conveniently absent from the endless revolving door that is Maisie’s story (although there are several court scenes.) Wouldn’t any number of passersby-- teachers, lawyers, co-workers-- eventually realize that these people are unfit parents? By the end, the viewer is waiting around for someone to simply put an end to the madness, a la` the domestic dispute of Sonny Koufax in Big Daddy. Needless to say, when a film’s final scene causes its viewer to long for the realism of an Adam Sandler project, all hope is essentially lost.

 

Despite strong performances, the relatively weak material that comprises What Maisie Knew leaves its audience scratching their heads. Do we learn anything from What Maisie Knew that we didn’t know before? Not really. Still, though they’re few and far between, there are some aspects of the film worth knowing.

 

Author Bio:

Loren DiBlasi is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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