Most of us have seen a number of films about divorce. Some have taken on a lighter tone (Mrs. Doubtfire) and others have taken on a more serious one (Kramer Vs. Kramer). One thing that is constant in all of them, is the emotional damage that the children of divorce endure. This is the central issue at the heart of directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s family drama What Maisie Knew.
The film takes place in modern-day Manhattan at the beginning of a nasty separation involving aging rocker Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan). As their arguing and not-so-subtle divorce proceedings drag on, the fight over custody of their young daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) becomes more intense and the child is shuffled back and forth between each parent’s respective home. Beale quickly moves on and marries Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the only sane adult in Maisie’s life, who also happens to be Maisie’s former nanny. Susanna also moves on and marries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a quiet NY bartender who forges a strong bond with Maisie that gives the child a person to count on. As time passes, Maisie’s relationships with both Beale and Susanna grow strained, and she has to figure out a way to be loved and happy once again.
The bulk of What Maisie Knew will provoke one of two reactions: outrage or heartbreak. In most cases, you feel both simultaneously. Susanna and Beale are written as despicable characters, possibly because adults can regress emotionally when they feel attacked. This is particularly the case with Moore’s character, as there are brief flashes of motherhood that make you stop and wonder if she has the necessary ability to step up to the plate, but each sliver of hope is usually dashed quickly as if she realizes she is appearing too maternal for her rocker-chick persona. The same goes for Steve Coogan’s Beale, who is the personification of absentee fatherhood. His motives are more for personal gain as opposed to genuine concern for his daughter. The most telling sign of this problem usually reveals itself in the few scenes where he is alone with Maisie. He usually appears nervous and at a loss for words, as if he doesn’t know how to communicate himself to her. So it comes as no surprise that each parent subtly prods Maisie for damning information about the other to use in their battle for custody. We, the audience, know that their battle isn’t because they each want to care for their daughter, it’s because they want to be the winner.
What Maisie Knew does something that other films about divorce have not done – it tells the story from the perspective of the child. It’s hard to understand how devastating divorce can be on children if you haven’t experienced it yourself. McGehee and Siegel solved this problem by casting the amazing young actress who portrays Maisie, Onata Aprile. The most heartbreaking scenes often involve no words at all, and at such a young age, it’s amazing how forcefully she translates that loss of innocence through a stare or body language. At times you feel as though she is the most mature character in the story, with the four adults in her life often acting with the petulance and aloofness of an 8 year old child. There is a scene in the film which feels like a turning point for Maisie, when Susanna drops her off at Lincoln’s bar in the middle of the night and doesn’t even walk her in. Subsequently, Maisie is forced to sleep in a stranger’s bed because Lincoln isn’t working. When Margo comes to her rescue, you can literally see that Maisie no longer believes in her mother anymore. It’s absolutely astonishing.
For their parts, Moore and Coogan deliver their performances as expected. There is no “better” parent in this scenario, and McGehee and Siegel make sure to remind us of that as often as possible. Coogan plays, well, Steve Coogan – but he is as slimy and unreasonable as he can be. Julianne Moore’s Susanna is written with more complexity. She’s a woman at odds with her own circumstances. At some point you begin to wonder when she’ll surrender and give up on parenthood altogether, but Moore somehow still finds a way to make you empathize with her. That’s perhaps the best gift that Moore has – she finds the humanity in almost every character she plays.
The real standouts of this film are Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham as Lincoln and Margo respectively. Skarsgard is surprisingly more withdrawn, and his performance is truly amplified by his incredible chemistry with Onata Aprile. The contrast of this giant, hulking man playing alongside a petit little girl is very sweet, and we’re treated to many scenes of the two simply being together. It’s in these scenes where the heart of the film exists. Skarsgard continues to prove his versatility, and it will be interesting to see his choice of roles as his career takes off.
Joanna Vanderham, who I was not even aware of prior to seeing this film, is a revelation as Margo. Like Skarsgard’s Lincoln, Margo is the source of maternal comfort for Maisie, and Vanderham plays her with a warmth and charm that would be lost if a more well-known actress was cast in the role. Her job is tricky, as she truly wants to be loved, while also keeping her emotions in check as she cares for young Maisie. A scene where she locks herself out of her apartment is a peak at what Vanderham can do, and I hope to see more of her in the future.
What Maisie Knew is based on the 1987 novel of the same name by author Henry James. I have never read the book, but if it’s half as good as this movie, I may have to give it a try. This film is not a classic by any means, but it will break your heart several times. Directors McGehee and Siegel have crafted a very universal story about the emotional consequence of divorce that stands alone, moreso at the expense of it’s title character. As she loses her innocence, we’re right there to watch it happen. See this film.