By Don Simpson | August 12, 2013
Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Writers: Nancy Doyne (screenplay), Carroll Cartwright (screenplay), Henry James (novel)
Starring: Onata Aprile, Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Joanna Vanderham, Sadie Rae Lee, Jesse Stone Spadaccini, Diana Garcia Soto, Amelia Campbell, Maddie Corman, Paddy Croft, Emma Holzer
Maisie (Onata Aprile) is pretty much as cute as six-year-old kids can possibly get, so if you do not get a bit misty when you first notice her eavesdropping on her parents — Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan) — argument, there might be something seriously wrong with your nasolacrimal ducts. Unfortunately, that night is just a precursor for what is to come. It is not long before Susanna and Beale are divorced, leaving Maisie stuck in the dangerous crossfire of the battlefield.
Maisie begins alternating ten days at a time with her mom then her dad, who are both too distracted by their careers to actually care for Maisie on their own; so Beale promptly marries Maisie’s beautiful young nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), while Susanna marries a young floppy-haired bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). Of course those relationships do not work out very well either, so now Maisie finds herself bouncing back and forth between four very woefully unhappy adults. Susanna and Beale grow increasingly flakey, unwilling to commit themselves to Maisie’s happiness and well-being; so Margo and Lincoln are left to fill the vacuum of Maisie’s parents.
As Maisie finds more love and understanding from the two people in her life to whom she is not directly related by blood, What Maisie Knew subtly makes a case for non-traditional and adoptive families. Scott McGehee and David Siegel purposefully tell What Maisie Knew from the perceptive vantage point of Maisie. This includes Maisie’s dreamlike affinity for discovering distractions from the grim reality of the bitter examples of adulthood that surround her — such as playing with toys, staring out windows and drawing castles. Sure, Maisie’s oh-so-innocent perspective that seems to be informed by an uncanny ability to study and comprehend human adult behavior possibly exaggerates the negligence and irresponsibility of her two birth parents, but nonetheless this approach is sure to win the sympathy of anyone with a beating heart.
This adaptation of Henry James’s 1897 novel cleverly modernizes the text — while relocating it from London to New York City — but it still maintains the same staggering level of profundity of a six-year-old child who wants love and attention from whomever is willing to become a reliable and stable guardian for her. Both the source novel and the adapted film offer unflinching condemnations of birth parents who are far too irresponsible and selfish to raise children on their own. In both the novel and film, Maisie is more intelligent, considerate and perceptive than any of the adults who surround her. Maisie clearly knows what she needs in order to mature into a sane and stable adult, she just needs to figure out how to make that happen. Most of all, Maisie understands that kids should be more than just a possession for adults to use as bargaining tools.
Sure, some of the visual metaphors are bit heavy-handed and the slow motion running in the closing shot of the film is nauseatingly saccharine; but the chemistry and/or disdain shared between the four adult protagonists of this film feels so damn authentic that any directorial flourishes are easily forgivable. Then, there is the young Onata Aprile (The History of Future Folk, Yellow) as the eponymous lead who effortlessly steals every freaking minute of this emotional rollercoaster ride of a film. Like Maisie, Aprile seems to be one of those rare examples of a child who is matured and skilled far beyond her years. I hate to use the word “brilliant” to describe such a young actor, but I can think of no better word to describe Aprile’s performance.