What Maisie Knew Reviews
The child actress who plays Maisie is very good. The adult cast are also effective. The story just could have been so much more than it was.
"What Maisie Knew" is one of those dramas that takes itself very seriously, and in the end doesn't really know what it what's to be. At least that's what I took away from it. This is pretty much about the absolute worst set of parents ever(Jullianne Moore and Steve Coogan). They fight all the time and neglect their daughter, Maisie. The are always pawning her off to the nanny(and Coogan's new wife) Margo(Joanna Vanderham) and Moore's new boyfriend Lincoln(Alexander Skarsgård ) They pretty much bond with Maisie while her parents are off doing who knows what with who knows who. It's find of a downer of a movie, even though it's not really meant to be that way. It's very slow and the performances are all solid, but nothing spectacular. This is one to just skip and catch on Netflix eventually if your really bored, or need help sleeping.
When it comes to divorce dramas, the easy way is to go big, to ramp up the emotions of such an emotionally distraught experience, and to tip into the overwrought territory of melodrama. I can already imagine the animated shouting fests and crying fests. Then there's the impulse to go the bitterness route, like 2005's The Squid and the Whale, where the movie takes a cue from its feuding parents and infuses the film with a dark, overpowering sense of acrimony. I credit directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Bee Season) for making arguably one of the most subdued movies about divorce I've ever seen. It's certainly not flippant in the slightest, treating the subject, and mainly the toxic effect on Maisie, with sincerity and good taste. But as far as overblown shouting matches, they're kept to a minimum and mostly comprise the first fifteen minutes of the movie, establishing the inevitable divorce of Susanna and Beale. The movie ignores the sensational and focuses on the ordinary, little moments of complete believability that serve to build, like brick by brick, the overall reality of the story. You'll watch the film and think to yourself that, even with parents with completely outlandishly rich professions, that everything in this movie could realistically happen. Weird to think that James wrote his tale over 100 years ago and yet how relatable his conflicts still are to this day. However, because of this subdued, naturalistic approach, What Maisie Knew can't quite find a proper ending. The one presented seems a tad too pat and tidy for this movie. It almost approaches a"happy ending," though not quite. Still, knowing how thick-skulled both Susanna and Beale are, it's hard to think that they will ever come to their senses and do what's in the best interest of Maisie.
This can be an uncomfortable movie to watch because Maisie's mom and dad are so destructively neglectful and self-involved. There's a perverse rubbernecking draw to seeing the antics of truly awful parenting. You'll find yourself getting very mad at how terrible these people are at being human beings. Susanna and Beale interrogate their daughter for ammo they can use against the other, twisting and manipulating the kid that we wonder if either truly cares about. Dad's always full of excuses and mom's looking to flee from responsibility at a moment's notice, dumping her daughter on her latest boyfriend. You'll find yourself easily sympathizing with Lincoln and Margo, the two people who love Maisie most and would make the best parents for her. I began rooting that they just abduct Maisie and start a new life as a family in a different country. The unchecked narcissism of both Susanna and Beale could serve as a clinical study. It's a wonder that Maisie seems like a bright, playful, and relatively normal kid. For now.
Another aspect of McGehee and Siegel's joint direction that I really enjoyed was how the movie takes on the perspective of little Maisie; she is our eyes and ears, and often the camera framing will instinctively mirror her own point of view, cutting off adults. It's an interesting visual approach but it also further tethers us to this girl, forcing us to think even deeper about Maisie's perspective, and how she's interpreting the angry words. I suppose there is a valid argument to be had that a seven-year-old child is going to be a rather limited perspective on such a contentious conflict. There's also the nature of Maisie. She's a relatively quiet child, given to poking her head around corners and staring with those big glassy eyes of hers. Given the fact that she's a child, and processing a painful life experience, don't expect her to divulge too much about her thoughts and feelings. She's an opaque presence and I realize that that can get frustrating for some. She's not the kind of kid that's going to burst into tantrums. This girl is internalizing all the pain and confusion. Having a passive prism for your movie might be akin to telling a love story from the point of view of a potted fern. Literally anchoring the camerawork to Maisie (I don't want to oversell this as if it's a stylistic gimmick) forces us to constantly think of every action through its impact upon Maisie. It's not exactly a coming of age or loss of innocence tale but more a combination of the two.
If you're going to have a child be the star of your movie, you better choose wisely. I've found that as I grow older I have less tolerance for poor child actors. Perhaps it's my inner Scrooge. Good thing that little Aprile (Yellow) is so effortlessly heartbreaking as she tries to find her way amidst her changing home life. One day she has a mom and dad, then she's splitting time, then her daddy has a new mommy, who happens to be her old nanny, and then mommy has a new husband as well (Susanna admits she got remarried simply to improve her court standing). Aprile nicely underplays her character's innate vulnerability while still reminding you of her youth. She'll get scared and ask to go home, crying alone in her bed, and your heart will ache. I cannot say whether the strength of Aprile's performance lies more with her legitimate skills as an actress, good direction, or the general reticence of the character, and thus the lesser demands for a child.
Moore (The Kids Are All Right) and Coogan (The Trip) give surprisingly textured performances, at least more so than the opening fifteen minutes would have you believe. They can both be monstrous and callously indifferent to their daughter's well being, but as the movie concludes, each one of them has a small moment where they realize the damage they are inflicting upon their child, how poor a parent they have been (Susanna even lashes out at Lincoln's encouragement to Maisie as "undermining her as a parent"). It's much more than I was anticipating and both actors do good work at being unlikable without going overboard. Fans of TV's True Blood might just swoon a little harder thanks to Skarsgard's good-natured, humble, and mildly affecting performance as a man who becomes profoundly attached to Maisie. He may not know what he's doing but isn't that parenting as a whole? Skarsgard and the charming Vanderham make a great onscreen pair and their genuine affection for Maisie provide the most uplifting moments.
When it comes to parenting, there are no magic instructions to insure a responsible, loving, thoughtful, and independent human being. It's a leap of blind faith. However, it's much easier to predict the events that can screw up an impressionable child (do not misconstrue this as my declaration that children of divorce are, at heart, broken somehow). The thought of collateral damage is fresh in our minds as we track little Maisie trying to survive the reach of her terrible parents. The terse arguments can be painful but even more painful is the overall negligence of her rich and mostly absent, self-involved parents. What Maisie Knew isn't a downer of a movie and its subject matter is given proper seriousness and reflection. You'll likely cringe at points, may even grumble under your breath, but in the end it ends on a hopeful note, the possibility that Maisie, under the right guidance, could turn out to be the bright kid we see glimpses of at her school. There's something quite moving about the resiliency of a child. This is, of course, just one interpretation of the movie, but What Maisie Knew is an emotionally engaging, subdued, sincere, and poignant film that trades on naturalistic waves of human interaction rather than cartoonish bluster, all the while forgoing cheap sentimentality or unpleasant bitterness. For the performances, the deft handling of sensitive material, and the quality direction, give What Maisie Knew a chance when able.
Nate's Grade: B+
The perspective it delivers on a child's almost unconditional ability to love is brilliant.
The high concept plot of Henry James' late 19th century novel seems tailor made for the sort of rom-com guff that usually stars Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler and an irritating kid from the Jonathan Lipnicki pre-school of acting. Thankfully, Hollywood execs aren't big on classic American literature and so the indie pair of McGehee and Siegel have been able to adapt James' work without any climactic races to airports, handsome villains or sassy ethnic best friends. While they largely eschew sentimentality, McGehee and Siegel avoid the darkness of the source material. "Charming" seems to have become something of a dirty word in modern cinema, where a film is only considered an "adult drama" if it's drab and depressing. 'What Maisie Knew' has charm in spades.
In less subtle hands, this could be a mawkish travesty, with a Disney Club child actress spouting "insightful" dialogue well beyond her years. Thankfully, Maisie is a realistic six-year-old and, far from having a collection of wise-ass soundbites, is a largely silent character. Aprile is fantastic in the role, conveying more emotion with her eyes than the likes of Dakota Fanning could have ever accomplished with any amount of dialogue. She's present in almost every frame, which means we see the quartet of adults only when in her presence, biting their tongues so as not to upset her. This is the one decision that really elevates the film above similar dramas. There are no shouty arguments, instead we have whispered rage and unspoken desire.
Last year we had two examples of how not to base your film around children ('Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close', 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'). 2013, however, has been a vintage year for child-based film ('Mud', 'Broken', 'Wadjda'). Kids are not the insightful dwarf-philosophers so many bad screen-writers think they are. They're simply smaller, dumber, more naive versions of us and, when portrayed this way, they can make for great movie characters.
What is most unique about the film, is that the film's narrative point of reference stays almost entirely with Maisie. We see through her eyes, and thus witness the actions and behaviors of those around her with a sort of uncanny innocence. This makes for an extremely authentic study of children caught in the midst of such turmoil. Maisie's growing awareness yet relentless spirit is conveyed throughout. The film captures such family dynamics in a realistic way, which makes the emotional impact very strong, albeit often uncomfortable.
The performances also help create an effective character study for all involved. This is true of everyone, especially Onata Aprile, who gives one of the more remarkable child-actor performances in quite some time. Julianne Moore is also notable, turning in a remarkable portrayal as a broken, caring, yet torn mother who can scarcely hide her disdain and insecurity.
In the end, we are left with a film that resonates on a deep emotional level, especially for viewers who can relate to the film's bitter insights. Highly recommended.
The film has a few relatively unique aspects, but they can't entirely cover up the familiarity of this subject matter, which is almost blandly recognizable as a family dysfunction drama, and let me tell you, that blandness isn't exactly helped by the dry spells. Now, the film could have been duller, and I was sure expecting it to be that, but all of the meditations upon substance start to devolve into some serious blandness once material runs out, as it often does, what with all of the dragging. While not that long, the film gets to be overlong at times, offering plenty of draggy meditations upon substance that eventually become overemphatic of thematic depth, leading to subtlety lapses. Of course, those subtlety lapses are themselves somewhat subtle, as the film isn't all that bloated, and, as irony would have, that's the final product's biggest issue, because more than anything, storytelling is hurried and undercooked, if not kind of repetitious with all of its jumping from one major plot beat to another. While slow in pacing, the structure of the film is mostly too brisk for its own good, and yet, there was always to be undercooking, as this narrative is told entirely from the point-of-view of the titular child, whose limited understanding of the key conflicts in this tells you only so much about this family dysfunction drama. I suppose this storytelling style is refreshing, but it's also convoluted with its sparse material delivery, which limits resonance that is further limited by familiarity and other pacing problems that seem to never abate, leaving the final product to never quite pick up enough momentum to charge beyond underwhelmingness. The overambitious effort is kind of misguided with its efforts, until reward value is lost, though not so lost that decency isn't recovered, with the help of such subtly fine attributes as tasteful artistic value.
I wasn't really expecting this film to be all that strong with its visual style, and, well, it isn't entirely, as Giles Nuttgens' cinematography is not that upstanding, although it is still fairly handsome, with a soft emphasis on certain areas in lighting that add an almost dreamy quality which may reflect the drama's central theme dealing with a juvenile heart caught up in the midst of heavy situations. Arguably more reflective of the film's theme is Nick Urata's score, which is unevenly used in this often dryly quiet film, but still tasteful and clever with its plays with near-adolescent perk, combined with atmospherically hearty, lightly classical elements that prove to be beautiful, as well as complimentary to the core of this very thematic drama about family dysfunction as seen through the eyes of a child. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel utilize style fairly tastefully in order to move, not just on an aesthetic level, but with a thoughtfulness that augments the heart of this drama's substance, and when the quieter, less stylish moments of meditativeness kick in, they even draw you in, at least to some degree. Sure, the particularly thoughtful moments in direction are generally kind of blanding, but pacing never slips to truly dull depths, and when material really kicks in, the meditations subtly bite and do a fair bit of justice to the potential of this project. Sure, this modernist interpretation of Henry James' classic dramatic story has not simply become formulaic over the years, but is questionably structured with its handling very layered subject matter with a weight that is limited by a child's point-of-view, and yet, this subject matter remains worthy, with a compelling heart whose execution is faulty, but nevertheless endearing. More endearing than the direction, or at least more consistently endearing, is the acting, as most every member of this admittedly small, but talented cast delivers in their selling different perspectives of very intense subject matter, sometimes to a moving point. If there are resonant moments to this often cold drama, then they are anchored by highlights within some underwritten performance, and while there is ultimately too much missing in storytelling and consistency in inspiration for the final product to win you over as surely as it could have, there is enough inspiration on and off of the screen to engage much more often than not, regardless of limitations.
In conclusion, the story is a little too familiar and draggy, perhaps even unsubtle, for its own good, and it's certainly too hurried for its own good, to the point of exacerbating the undercooking that is anchored by the questionable storytelling method of telling this drama from the point-of-view of a lead whose understanding of important subject matter is limited to the point of being instrumental in holding the final product back as underwhelming, but not so underwhelming that tastefully fine cinematography and score work, - utilized fairly well by sometimes effectively meditative direction - and strong acting behind a worthy story aren't enough to make Scott McGehee's and David Siegel's interpretation of "What Maisie Knew" an endearing, if sometimes misguided observation of a child's observation of the destruction of adult relationships around her.
2.5/5 - Fair
It was a pleasure watching these amazing actors: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham and Steve Coogan. Tiny Onata Aprile was actually the "biggest" - she was the most adorable, most charming, most believable and deserves every praise possible. She wasn't JUST a cute kid, but as a fully formed actress, and I will even dare to say, person! The screenplay had every character fully developed and at the end we could conclude that this beautifully observed drama essentially striking the same sad note for the full length of the movie, does that with enough sensitivity and emotional variation. I am glad that doing that it made the experience cumulatively heartrending rather than merely aggravating.
If you are ready for a seriously impressive drama that packs one hell of an emotional punch - prepare yourself! It is here.
All in all, it was a pretty good watch but it did have its problems.
It's crazy daring (and damn difficult) to build your film from the perspective of a child (Aprile is absolutely perfect), yet directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel and screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright -- updating for today a late-19th century novel by Henry James -- turn what could have been a hollow take on the dysfunctional day-to-day of a singular little girl into a movie of haunting multitude and feeling. Shrugging it off as white people problems is about as deadpan as one can get. I'd say it ends on the note we as an audience want it to rather than where it realistically should, but that's just nitpicking since I can't think of anything too wrong with it. "What Maisie Knew" is something special and hard-won, transfixing and subjective while never not profoundly universal. (80/100)
The Good: The performances are the film's best assets. From Skarsgard and Vanderham's sweet step-parents to the bitter and disinterested parents portrayed by Coogan and Moore, the cast works in their roles. Director's McGehee and Siegel know how to craft the tone of the film by using beautiful visuals and subtle music touches to help us connect with Maisie.
The Bad: Not much bad to comment on here.
The Smugly (Nitpicks): It gets a little repetitive with many of the storybeats, but it's understandable because McGehee and Siegel are building a case against the parents. Many of the plot points are predictable.