Children are too often used as cheap emotional props in films. I suppose the general line of thinking is it's better to have things happen to them in a carefully arranged fashion for dramatic effect than run the risk of relying on their performance to carry the final product. Half of that isn't a bad thought process, kids don't usually have enough experience on this planet to modulate their behavior in such a way that makes for an effective lie. But needlessly putting children in danger is a quick and cheap way to garner sympathy in any story.
What Maisie Knew runs up to the edge of this risk, peers over the edge, and tests the waters of the "child in danger" scenario. For too long it felt as though we were going through an endurance test along with Maisie. Just how many times can she be neglected by her parents before we say enough? The beats of the film were too comfortable with this track and, no matter the intentions, seemed destined for the emotionally lazy side of storytelling.
But Maisie pulls off a Hail Mary in the details, carefully modulated through a performance by Onata Aprile, who was only seven when the movie was filmed. It's not a message film, or one that has any particularly special resonance for me. But the strengths of Maisie are in its eventual simplicity. Hers is a story of strife at the most delicate time in her formative life, and how lucky she is to get out ok.
Maisie (Aprile) is caught in a tug of war between her soon to be divorced parents. Beale (Steve Coogan) is hardly home because of his job and when he is utilizes every bit of his passive-aggressive tactics to belittle his wife Susanna (Julianne Moore). She's not much better, seen in the opening shots singing her daughter to sleep as though the little one is a muse that doesn't offer inspiration anymore and has stopped being useful. Maisie doesn't have to worry about her needs because of her parent's success but they withhold their companionship, which is the only thing she really wants. On the sidlines are Susanna's eventual boyfriend, the perpetually spacey Lincoln (Alexander Skardsgard), and Margo (Joanna Vanderham), Maisie's nanny and, eventually, new step-mother.
I was just about ready to go on autopilot after the first act. Maisie, though finely played by Aprile, is given the annoying trait of being prenaturally mature and intelligent for her age. The tendency bottomed-out in a scene where Maisie plays the nurturing mother figure to her crying friend. This, combined with the broadly selfish strokes her parents are painted with, gave me the fear that we would be going through the rest of the film with wisdom from the mouths of babes providing resonance and meaning to lives consumed by material success. The film takes an easy target, goes at it in similarly straightforward way, and generates a skeptical eyebrow or two about Maisie's intelligence.
What saves Maisie, both the film and the girl, are the influence of the supporting characters. You wouldn't peg Lincoln as a good parent, especially since he first shows up stoned to try and pick up Maisie from school, but the movie shows, in excellent small moments, how Maisie's presence inspires others to be better people. One wonderful exchange has Maisie simply asking for help in drawing a castle and when he comes up with an idea she likes, plays dumb so that he'll stay around and doodle with her. This moment edges away from the too-smart Maisie of the first part of the film and just shows a kid able to recognize a good thing when it's in front of her.
That goodness informs the rest of the film, and is what makes it such a pleasure to watch. It's not often I see a film that sits back and lets the plot consist entirely of people just trying to be better than what they are. The added twist of this evolution all taking place from Maisie's point of view makes the transformations all the more poignant. Good art teaches us something about the world and, since we learn along with Maisie, it makes the joy of positive growth, no matter how small, feel that much important given her young age. This approach informs the visual style adopted by directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who place the world entirely from Maisie's point of view. Everything has the sparkle of feeling new, even when she's in scary surroundings, it has the morning crispness of fresh discovery.
Even with all this, the film would be merely good if it were not for the performances. Moore and Coogan, she as a rocker longing for her youth back and he the sarcastic businessman, could do these roles in their sleep. But they fill in the broad strokes with good details, like the way Moore acts like an overindulgent aunt instead of Maisie's mother. Skarsgard is the hero of the picture, at times almost painfully adorable in his relationship with Maisie, as he finds out that being a dad is what he may be best at. The only person not well treated by the film is Vanderham as Margo. She's great, but doesn't get the gradual transformation or tiny developmental insight everyone else does.
Maisie dodges quite the hurdle. There may be a few too many cloying detours, especially that plinking piano that accompanies many scenes, but What Maisie Knew eventually hits the broad emotional points to good effect. Good intentions don't always carry the day, but when they're done with this level of skill and care they shine through brilliantly.
Directed by Scott McGhee and David Siegel.
Screenplay written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright.
Starring Onata Aprile, Julianne Moore, and Steve Coogan.