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'What Maisie Knew' Is That Her Parents Were Utter Failures

Courtesy Millennium Entertainment

There’s no more important job than parenting, and it can go wrong in so many ways. In the powerful new drama What Maisie Knew, an updating of the 1897 Henry James novel to contemporary New York City, the audience sits by helplessly watching what happens when the wrong people fall into that job.

Daring to be despicable (and very good at it) Julianne Moore plays Susanna, the tattooed, attention-seeking rock star mother of Maisie (Onata Aprile), who’s about six years old and being fought over in a custody battle between her mother and Beale, her dad (Steve Coogan). Though both parents want sole custody, neither has earned it. Susanna and Beale are both so emotionally immature and self-absorbed that they might require babysitters themselves. 

A judge strikes a deal for Maisie to split her childhood between them in ten-day increments while at the same time Susanna and Beale take on new spouses: a hunky bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) for her and, for him, Maisie’s Irish nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham). Despite the odds, both Lincoln and Margo are more suited as Maisie’s caregivers than her biological parents, who are stuck in a toxic,distracting pattern of backstabbing and name-calling. 

Though the movie isn’t exactly shot from a child’s height, it’s definitely told from Maisie’s point of view. Like her, we overhear the fights and incriminations. She caught in the cross-fire of two narcissistic battling lightweights, both of whom are psychologically deaf and blind to empathy. When she is appropriately nurtured by Lincoln and Margo, there’s no simpler pleasure, even though both of them can’t quite fathom how they got into these positions they didn’t create.

Directed by the team of David Siegel and Scott McGehee, What Maisie Knew has the depth and nuance of other films like Ordinary People that don’t let dysfunctional parents off easy. Nancy Doyne’s and Carroll Cartwright’s script is so sharp and pointed, one can’t imagine what James’ version read like in its time. Strong performances are uniform throughout, especially Onata Aprile as the wide-eyed kid who comes off as both resilient and transparent, and Moore, whose Susanna is an unabashedly horrible woman whose assets, if she has any, aren’t visible to the naked eye.

What Maisie Knew | Dir. David Siegel and Scott McGehee | 1 hour 39 minutes | Showing at AMC Studio 30 in Olathe. Click here for showtimes.


Up To Date Arts & CultureFilm
Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.