We see custody battles on TV, in movies, and some experience it in real life. These stories are generally told in movies from the perspective of either the mother or the father; it's rarely told from the child's point-of-view. Scott McGehee and David Siegel's What Maisie Knew is an independent drama, which explores the mind of a child through a custody battle. Countless parents fight in front of their children, but kids understand more than what most parents give them credit for. While the film is from Maisie's perspective, there isn't any narration. The audience is never told exactly what this young girl is thinking about, which actually benefits the narrative and the emotional impact. Unlike countless dramas, What Maisie Knew delivers a fervent effect, which becomes increasingly difficult to shake.
Based on the classic Henry James novel, this motion picture is set in New York City. Maisie (Onata Aprile) is a young girl who finds herself caught in the middle of her parents' bitter divorce. The custody battle gets intense, as her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), and father, Beale (Steve Coogan), become even more vindictive. In the attempt to keep Maisie, each parent gets married in order to achieve the upper-hand. Beale marries Maisie's nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), while Susanna ties the knot with Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). This leads to Maisie wanting nothing more than a loving family.
Once the picture begins, the audience is instantly placed into Susanna and Beale's marriage difficulties, as Maisie overhears the chaos. It doesn't take long for the divorce to take place, and while we don't see the custody battle occur in court, we're aware of the outcome. Maisie reacts to the news rather well, but it doesn't take very long to notice her sadness when she starts being passed from one person to the next. While Susanna and Beale are her parents, they hardly act like her mother and father. Neither one of them truly listen to her, as they are constantly abandoning her, whether they are leaving for business reasons or simply dropping her off on the sidewalk. Her parents' attitudes are absolutely unacceptable, which will ultimately lead any viewer to madness. There's an extremely limited amount of disposition given to either of the parents, although the ending most certainly gives a few answers to the behavior being exhibited.
Margo and Lincoln are clearly being used by Beale and Susanna, although these two step-parents appear to be the only people that Maisie can reach out to amongst the chaos. They interact with her as a parent should, which allows Maisie to actually live out her childhood. Since the narrative is seen from Maisie's perspective, there isn't a lot of material backing characters like Margo and Lincoln. However, they still come across as complex roles with relationships that hold a hefty amount of depth. Writers Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright convey a lot of content without having to directly spell it out for audiences, as they clearly have faith that we will understand the gray areas. None of the characters are necessarily 'good' or 'evil,' but they're all flawed in different ways, although this doesn't necessarily excuse Susanna and Beale's irresponsible behavior.
While the film will most certainly have an emotional impact, there are a few scenes that come across as being slightly melodramatic. What Maisie Knew could have easily been trapped by the overly-dramatic moments, although it channels these sequences quite well. Regardless, this motion picture will leave audiences wishing that everything will go well for Maisie. I found myself sighing numerous times throughout this film's duration, as it made me frustrated. However, this is the reaction that one is intended to have throughout this feature. It evokes numerous powerful emotions, which can be difficult to discover in a movie. Even though it isn't genuine through every scene, What Maisie Knew knows what it wishes to accomplish, and does so with its well-constructed screenplay.
One of the film's strongest assets is its cast. Onata Aprile is superb in the role of Maisie. Given her age, this is an exceptional performance. This character simply wouldn't be the same without young Aprile. Julianne Moore is fantastic as Susanna. She displays the depression and desperation of the role extraordinarily well through this convincing performance, which brings a large amount of depth to the overall motion picture. Steve Coogan is solid as Beale, as this father changes his persona depending upon who he's interacting with. Alexander Skarsgård is incredibly fitting as Lincoln. He's awkward in the beginning, but becomes much more relaxed as he meets young Maisie. Joanna Vanderham also manages to impress as Margo. The level of these performances simply skyrocket as they interact with one another. The casting decisions are absolutely impeccable.
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel bring this story to the big screen with a splendid array of visuals. As each person enters or leaves Maisie's life, we're presented with a picture that is similar to a child's imagination, as these moments are displayed with the use of slow-motion. McGehee and Siegel utilize the spatial relationship between Maisie and the remainder of the frame in ways that often convey loneliness. This film constantly throws us along with Maisie from one person to another, which slightly disorients us. This aids in allowing the audience to connect with the lead role. Even when she's on screen with other characters, she almost appears out of place. The primary exception to this rule is when she spends time with Margo and Lincoln, which expresses a warmer tone. These directors introduce a variety of interesting visual choices.
There are moments that appear to simply scratch the surface, but it actually digs a lot deeper than one will witness from a quick glance. What Maisie Knew is an emotional roller coaster that isn't easy to forget. This memorable drama combines solid writing, excellent acting, and smart visual choices in order to create a strong motion picture. The source material may be old, but this feature makes it feel entirely new. Some scenes may come across as being slightly over-the-top, but that doesn't restrain this picture's emotional impact. Highly recommended!