It’s Friday morning, and you’re turning to your significant other saying, “Let’s go to the movies tonight…. What should we see?” You scroll through Fandango or skim through the Chronicle Datebook listings (okay, maybe that’s just me…) and ask, “What about this film about these two flawed people involved in a bitter custody fight over their sweet six- year-old daughter?” Your S.O. is no doubt responding…. “Ummm… how about Star Trek?”
That’s why Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s new film What Maisie Knew is such a puzzle. I’m not quite sure why this film was made, or who its intended audience is. It’s not exactly entertaining, and it’s not even a hard-to-watch-but-good-for-you type of moral or historical lesson, in the way a difficult film like The Pianist is. With this film, directors McGehee and Siegel basically just ask the viewer to watch some exceptionally nasty people behave awfully to each other and to their kid, an innocent bystander to the whole sorry mess. If you want to spend two hours eavesdropping on someone else’s horrible dysfunctional family problems, then perhaps you might enjoy this film. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, though, then your box office time and money may be better spent elsewhere.
The film is McGehee and Siegel’s update of an 1897 Henry James novel of the same name, which must have been a bit ahead of its time, in terms of being a turn-of-the century story of divorce, infidelity, and custody issues. In fact, a period costume drama may have been more interesting than this version, since then we could see 19th century reactions to what at that time would have been scandalous behavior by all parties.
But, instead, McGehee and Siegel decide to update the story, setting it in present day Manhattan, and transforming the main characters into an aging American rock star, Susanna (Julianne Moore), and a worldly English art dealer, Beale (Steve Coogan). They aren’t married, but, when the film starts, are unhappily living together with their six-year-old daughter, Maisie (newcomer Onata Aprile).
We can tell instantly that Susanna and Beale’s relationship is on the rocks by their incessant fighting, often right in front of Maisie. They split in short order, making no effort to conceal their resentments and hostility as they mount a particularly vicious custody battle for Maisie, who is caught between them at an age at which she can’t even begin to process the complicated emotions swirling around her. As such, the film plays more like a modern-day update of Kramer vs. Kramer than of Henry James.
Indeed, similar to films like The Ice Storm, American Beauty, and Moore’s picture The Kids Are All Right, What Maisie Knew portrays a reversal of the adult-child role, with the adults behaving like petulant children, and the children actually exhibiting maturity beyond their years. In that vein, the film is somewhat unique in that it is told entirely from Maisie’s perspective. We see all the actions of the adults through Maisie’s eyes, and the effect is to make us even more disbelieving and astonished at how these so-called adults conduct themselves.
Susanna is self-involved, spiteful, and manic; Beale is equally selfish, bitter, and pretentious, a Disneyland-Daddy of the worst kind. Neither is exactly parent of the year material, as they frequently forget to pick Maisie up at school, leave town for days or weeks on end without telling the other, and shower Maisie with gifts in lieu of spending time with her. Both parents are more focused on their respective careers than on their daughter; urgent cell phone calls always take precedence over her needs. We aren’t given any back story for Maisie’s conception and birth, but it’s easy to infer that Susanna’s pregnancy was probably not lovingly planned, and that the parents decided to just make do the best they could once Maisie arrived.
We do see that both parents love Maisie as best they can, but, quite plainly, she simply is not their priority at this point in their lives. They both find new spouses, and you get the sense they do so not so much because they are particularly wowed by these new people, but because they need someone to watch Maisie when they take off on their various trips, a point made obvious by Beale hooking up with pretty Scottish Margo (Joanna Vaderham), Maisie’s nanny. Susanna, in turn, marries a bartender, Lincoln, (Alexander Skarsgard), and straight out tells Maisie, “I did it for you.”
That Maisie, who is frequently left in either Lincoln or Margo’s care, develops more of a bond with the two of them than with her own parents comes as no surprise. And how Susanna and Beale react to that situation just serves to again showcase their mean-spirited, selfish temperaments.
The film’s many fine performances are its saving grace. Julianne Moore is exceptional, playing a woman whose emotions seem to be all on the surface – swinging wildly from hostile and raging to wounded and loving in the span of seconds. Heavily made up and chain smoking, Moore seems to be channeling a Courtney Love-type rock star of waning success (minus the heroin), and, watching her with Maisie, you can’t help but think of Love’s relationship with her daughter Frances Bean, and wonder if it played out in a similar fashion. Moore has an Oscar-worthy scene near the end of the film, a moment with Maisie in which Susanna finally recognizes a lifetime’s worth of emotions in a single conversation with her daughter, and confronts her own limitations and failings. If nothing else, this film stands as showcase for Moore’s tremendous talent.
Alexander Skarsgard, too, gives a nuanced performance worth watching. When we first meet Lincoln, grungy and rumpled, we make an immediate assumption that he’s nothing more than a slacker, one of Susanna’s hard-partying groupies. When Lincoln first is sent to pick up Maisie from school, he is remote and monosyllabic, and the teacher rightfully holds back handing Maisie over to him. He’s so inexperienced with children that the first time he crosses the street with Maisie, he walks ahead – it doesn’t occur to him to hold her hand.
But as the film progresses, we start to see that Lincoln is kind and decent in ways that Susanna and Beale are not, and he and Maisie soon form a bond based on genuine affection (watching Skarsgard here, I was reminded of the stark difference in parenting skills that Dustin Hoffman exhibits at the beginning and ending of Kramer vs. Kramer). As Maisie’s relationship with Lincoln (and with her new step-mother Margo, who is also tender and loving) deepens, we are only further reminded of Susanna and Beale’s shortcomings as parents.
Finally, Onata Aprile, who was six when she made the film, is astounding as Maisie. Far from being bratty, overly cutesy, or precocious, she has a natural presence reminiscent of Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Watch how Aprile reacts when Susanna badmouths Beale to Maisie; her face barely flinches, but you can see her mind trying to wrap itself around what is being said, and struggling to make sense of concepts far too complex for her years. Too often adults make the mistake of thinking they can talk freely in front of kids because kids won’t understand what’s being said in front of them; this movie will make you question that assumption in a big way, as you see Maisie solemnly absorbing everything going on around her, and the wheels turning in her six-year-old brain. It’s too soon to tell, but I predict Maisie may be in need of some serious therapy when she gets older.
Which brings us back to the original question – who would want to go see this film? In a voyeuristic sense, I think that people who have chosen not to have kids will see this film and walk away congratulating themselves on their choice, and people who do have kids will walk away promising themselves to always, always be the best parents they can. And anyone who wants to witness some amazing acting may find sitting through the nastiness almost worth it… especially if you’re not in the mood for light summer fare. You’ve been warned.
What Maisie Knew opens in Bay Area theaters today.