People look down on teenage parents because they aren’t the “right age” to have kids. They can hardly provide for themselves, let alone another person. But the most judgmental tend to forget that being a successful parent has nothing to do with age. It most arguably has to do with altruism, and how far a mother or a father is willing to go to ensure that their child is able to preserve their innocence for as long as possible. Adjusting to adulthood should be a natural progression rather than a matter of aging.
We often leave the children of wealthy parents out of the picture, who, more often than not, are surrounded by the gifts of their wildest dreams but hardly ever get the hands-on love they need in order to grow up well-adjusted. So take, for instance, Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), the well-off parents of Maisie (Onata Aprile), an observant 6-year-old more perceptive than anyone would believe. In the process of a nasty divorce, Susanna and Beale’s tendency to use Maisie as a pawn in their bitter games is now more prominent than ever. Susanna, an aging rock-and-roll star, believes that love is a matter of presents and fleeting showerings of kisses, not realizing how inappropriate it is to invite her hard living friends over for cigs and drinks during a sleepover, that it’s not okay to loudly tell her impressionable daughter that her father is an “asshole” in a moment of hysteria. Beale, an excessively busy businessman, couldn’t care less about Maisie; he sees her as the final move toward winning the battle with Susanna.
All this is told through the eyes of Maisie. Her world is so unpredictable that the monotonous fights between her narcissistic parents become background noise to her coloring book excursions. Something as simple as being picked up from school is not always a sure thing. The only adults who truly seem to care about her are Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the nanny who ran away with Beale, and Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), the bartender Susanna married in order to get back at Beale for marrying the nanny. Most children in Maisie’s exact situation grow up to be lost souls searching for a connection, but with considerable maturity at her side, we get a feeling that she’ll leave her childhood a more resilient person, albeit a more cynical one. Only a single tear is shed throughout
What Maisie Knew’s entirety — and there’s a lot she should be crying about.
Adapted from Henry James’s 1897 novel of the same name, What Maisie Knew is an affecting tale of a child’s loss of innocence. How can a 6-year-old grow up knowing that her parents don’t seem to care about her? The film keeps things largely unsentimental, the upsetting choices of Susanna and Beale unsettlingly believable; we don’t want to believe what we’re seeing is true, but we know that Maisie isn’t the only girl in the world with parental figures who don’t devote time to show any sort of genuine affection.
Aprile’s performance is largely silent, but her very presence, considerate and somehow weathered, makes Maisie so empathetic that we can feel the verbal lashes of Susanna and Beale hit us with a force similar to what we would feel if our own parents were divorcing. As a child, she sees them both as superheroes, but the film, watching her slowly age, sees her figuring out that they aren’t the magnificent people she once thought they were.
Coogan and Moore are terrific as her barely there parents. Though Moore’s Alison Mosshart imitation hardly sells, she still fleshes out the role as if she’s lived it her entire life. Coogan, the adult with the smallest role, is so self-absorbed that he can hardly see that leaving his new wife and daughter home alone for weeks at a time is not an aspect of a healthy home life. Skarsgård is immensely likable as a man far too nice of a guy to let his recent spouse’s daughter drift by without any love; Vanderham is heartbreaking as a woman whose reality is shattered after she realizes that her fairy tale life is more akin to a Hopper painting than a Rockwell masterpiece.
What Maisie Knew ends on a slightly forced happy note, but for all its heartrending fixings, optimism is a much needed outlet for its pessimism. Fueled by an excellent ensemble and a distinctly human eye, it is a story of divorce and all its setbacks with proper dirt-on-the-ground frustrations. It lingers in the memory, not necessarily because it is a film with unforgettable style but because we can only wonder just how many kids face the same predicament as Maisie and go on forgotten. B+