“What Maisie Knew” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:43, three and a half stars out of four.
In the first scene of “What Maisie Knew,” we see six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) playing tic-tac-toe with her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham). The game serves as a fitting metaphor for divorce: a confrontational game between two opponents that nobody ends up winning.
What’s different, and heartrending about how “Maisie” looks at divorce is that it does so through her six-year-old eyes, sometimes uncomprehending, sometimes understanding far better than her parents realize. Why is Mommy crying? Who is that woman with Daddy? At times “What Maisie Knew” can be difficult to watch, especially if you’ve been through similar circumstances as either a child or parent. But it’s an intimate, well-acted and nuanced film that provides a fresh angle on an all-too-familiar struggle.
Maisie’s mom is Susanna (Julianne Moore) a fading rocker in the Courtney Love mode, who vacillates between neediness and indifference towards her young daughter. Her father is Beale (Steve Coogan), a wealthy art dealer who spends most of his life on the phone or abroad for business. They break up at the beginning of the film, and soon much of Maisie’s life is spent shuttling back and forth between one parent and the other, listening to one bad-mouth the other. There’s no doubt Susanna and Beale love Maisie, in their way, but there’s also no doubt that they are pretty lousy parents, self-involved and eager to win Maisie over to their side. The film is actually an adaptation of an old Henry James novel, but feels utterly contemporary.
Beale ends up moving in with the nanny Margo, and in retaliation Susanna marries a hunky young bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard). As Beale and Susanna recede from the film — mercifully — it’s left to these new step-parents to take care of Maisie. And the twist you should see coming but don’t is that they turn out to be great parents for Maisie, much better than her biological ones. The relationship between the towering Skarsgard and little Aprile is particularly affecting — the two actors have a warm rapport you rarely see in child-adult relationships.
The acting is all terrific here — both Beale and Susanna could have easily been broad, villainous types, but Coogan and especially Moore make them seem more pathetic than villainous, so wrapped up in their own needs they can’t see the damage they’re doing. But this kind of film only pierces your heart if the child actress is good, and young Aprile is unbelievable, so natural and unforced, without a hint of cutesiness or pathos about her. The film looks at the world entirely through Maisie’s perspective, both in how it views the characters and in its luminous cinematography, the colors popping off the screen, the frame rate sometimes slowing down just slightly in moments of dreamlike rapture.
As Maisie stares uncomprehendingly up at her nattering parents, or warmly at Lincoln and Margo, you sense that she really does know quite a lot, and whatever happens, she’ll rise above it.