I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I can’t think of another movie that so expertly discusses divorce from the child’s perspective. In this case, the child is Maisie (Onata Aprile in her debut performance), who finds herself torn in all directions while her parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) battle for custody and start getting involved with other people. I’m unclear on exactly how much time passes over the course of the film. Maisie never gets any older, so it’s presumably only a couple of months, but so much happens that it feels like a much longer period of time.
I found Maisie’s story incredibly relatable given that I didn’t experience a lot of what she goes through with my parents’ divorce. Even so, the events of the film felt eerily familiar. The bribery, the manipulation, the passive aggressive digs at the other parent, the fishing for information, the being forced to choose sides and being made to feel guilty over your love for one parent by the other. It’s nice (and disturbing) to see a film that explores the divorce of two self-diagnosed victims through the eyes of the only one who actually has cause to complain. The tragedy of Maisie’s situation is further emphasized by the fact that she’s too young to really understand how terribly she’s being treated. In her eyes, her parents can do no wrong; a fact they exploit at every turn as soon as Maisie becomes a burden in their selfish little existence.
Interestingly, the parents don’t start off as evil, selfish archetypes. In the beginning, the audience is very much rooting for the Julianne Moore character to win custody and be rid of her jerk of an ex-husband, who may also have issues with alcoholism, but that’s never really explored. Then, things shift and we start to see the father as a decent guy while the mother emerges as an irresponsible burn-out. Our loyalties shift from parent to parent to step-parent to step-parent almost as quickly as a naïve young child who just wants some stability in her life, and to play with her pet turtle.
I can’t stress enough how amazing Onata Aprile’s performance is in this. She tends to be quiet, with a fairly small number of lines to perform, but in her silence there is a wealth of expression and emotion in the way she looks at a character or the way she moves. It’s expertly done, and she offers one of the most genuine and realistic performances you’re likely to see from a film this year. I also give a lot of credit to Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood) and Joanna Vanderham for their performances here. Being a step-parent can be a fairly thankless job, being caught in the middle of someone else’s custody battle and feeling powerless to do anything productive puts a lot of strain on these people. While Maisie’s parents continue to retreat into their own selfish wants, Lincoln (Skarsgard) and Margot (Vanderham) form an unlikely friendship based on their mutual love of Maisie and a compelling responsibility to step up and take care of her even without being actually related to her. The scenes with these three together are definitely the highlight of the film, and it creates an interesting emotional resonance at the back of the audience’s head because they know that it can’t last forever simply because they are not Maisie’s real parents.
I can’t recommend this one enough. In a year of disappointing film after disappointing film, What Maisie Knew emerges as a refreshing gem. Special features include deleted scenes and the director’s commentary. Available now on DVD and Blu-Ray from Millennium Entertainment.