What Maisie Knew illustrates why plot synopses rarely do movies justice. On the surface, this is a movie with a 6-year-old girl as a protagonist who is forced to endure a cruel custody battle between her selfish parents. The story is told from her point of view, meaning the specific details of the adult characters’ lives are largely obscured, and instead we get scenes of little Maisie coloring pictures with crayons, playing with baby turtles and singing songs at school.
And yet somehow at the same time, What Maisie Knew is most decidedly not a children’s movie. It is full of sadness, and not just because we see a little girl get used as a pawn in the erosion of a marriage between two adults. It’s sad because it shows the worst kind of cynicism in the adult world, which was of course the modus opporandi of the 1897 Henry James novella from which the movie is based. Maisie (played by big-eyed Onata Aprile) is constantly sifted through various parents, stepparents and babysitters because no one has time to watch her and worse yet, maybe they don’t really care about her.
But here’s a provocative question: Are Maisie’s parents supposed to care? I don’t necessarily want to take the side of Maisie’s irresponsible parents, but stay with me for a moment. Everyone wants to believe that children should be the primary interests of the parents that choose to have them. But society teaches us that for the first 25-40 years of our life, we need to put ourselves first – our careers, our motivations, our own lives and responsibilities. This is a contradiction. Is it morally reprehensible to ask how adults who have found a great deal of success in their work are supposed to balance the demands of their job with the demands of home life? It’s like that saying about people who are either married to their spouse or to their job. Recent studies have shown that having children is the biggest cause of marital dissatisfaction and eventual separation – more than jobs, money or sex. Then again, we don’t really need scientific research to show this when movies like Revolutionary Road, Blue Valentine, and even The Place Beyond the Pines illustrate it so vividly.
One theory suggests that children also tend to reflect the worst qualities of the caregivers that take care of them. Adults who find daily success in their jobs aren’t used to dealing with such blunt and overt criticism from their child or spouse when they come home. In little Maisie’s case, it is fortunate that she has only retained her parents’ best qualities (or, perhaps put another way, hasn’t yet picked up their worst features). It is also clear that her bickering parents (Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore) are people who, despite their success in “the real world,” should have never had children.
I guess my sympathy with them goes as far as to suggest that they couldn’t have possibly known the depths of the misery that having a child would cause. Then again, maybe their occupations suggested their incompatibility with family life: Moore’s character, Susanna, is rock ‘n’ roll musician who frequently goes on tour, while Coogan’s character, Beale, is an art dealer with clients in Europe. Both are successful, wealthy individuals who are well-accustomed to the riches of life in posh Manhattan. They are likely surrounded by other people whose jobs it is to give them words of affirmation. A simple movie would have been content to show them as vapid, self-absorbed charlatans who only show affection for Maisie when it might benefit their divorce settlement.
And this is what we think in the first half hour of the film. But because What Maisie Knew limits the scope of what we know about Susanna and Beale to what Maisie is able to observe, we only see her parents’ best intentions. We only want to project the best version of ourselves on to our loved ones, right? Susanna and Beale may be self-centered, and their actions rarely appear to back up their loving words to Maisie, but beneath it all, we see two characters who are as disgusted with their ex-spouses as they are with themselves.
Two other prominent characters emerge. One is the Scottish-born Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who was once hired to be a nanny to Maisie, but is also shown to be Beale’s lover and new wife. Perhaps she is one of the causes for Beale and Susanna’s split. Perhaps she is marrying Beale only for his money. Or maybe Beale and Susanna are too invested in their daily routines to really give a shit. In a refreshing deviation from “bitchy stepmother” caricature, Margo seems to genuinely care about Maisie, and spends time caring for and playing with her . . . but on the other hand, if she truly cared about the little girl, why would she ever allow herself to be put in such an awkward position between Beale and Susanna, knowing how much her presence would exacerbate an already toxic divorce?
The same can be said about Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), who shows up one night at one of Susanna's parties and seemingly the next minute, becomes Maisie's new stepfather. Susanna tells Maisie that she married him "for her" but we are not sure what this means or if we should believe her. Like Margo, Lincoln is quite a few steps below Susanna financially (he works as a bartender), but also seems to care deeply for Maisie, recognizing if he doesn't show her affection, there may be nowhere else in Susanna's life where Maisie can find it.
At the heart of this movie isn’t Maisie or even Maisie’s parents, but Lincoln and Margo. These are two complex, fascinating characters. The fact that they both move into marriages so abruptly suggests deep-seeded emotional pain or fear of abandonment. The fact that at a crucial moment in the film they recognize a sexual attraction to one another suggests as much vulnerability as instability. Do they really think a relationship between them could work when their only shared interest is Maisie’s well-being? Relationships, like jobs, demand a high degree of tunnel vision for them to work. Throughout the film, Maisie becomes caught at the outside of this tunnel – first with her parents, and then, perhaps inevitably, with Lincoln and Margo.
What Maisie Knew was directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose previous films (The Deep End, Bee Season, Uncertainty) dealt with families in crisis. This is a film with a more leisurely pace, episodic at times, reminding us that for young children, sometimes life’s most significant moments occur during ordinary days. What I admire the film is how it manages to sidestep the sentimentality of the custody battle and instead become a mature character study about adults with good intentions who fall victim to their own personal shortcomings. Just like Dustin Hoffman knew in Kramer vs. Kramer, kids bring out the best and worst in their parents. Then again, audiences may not have that degree of sympathy for four adult characters so self-absorbed that a six-year-old girl spends a night with a complete stranger because they each assume someone else is looking after her. But in a way, that’s what I like about the film: Like Maisie, we are forced to choose our role models from only among the imperfect adults we know.
Rating: 3.5 stars