Review: What Maisie Knew

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Director: Scott McGehee
Starring: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Joanna Vanderham, Alexander Skarsgard, and Onata Aprile
Rating: 3 out of 5 little dollar turtles. This film, released in May of last year but which is available on Netflix now, effectively and poignantly presents to us the confused frustration and quiet disorientation of a young girl tossed around, the unfortunate pawn in an ugly and selfish divorce between more or less equally unstable parents. I think Onata Aprile is brilliant as the 6 year old title character, but her plight grows tedious and stretched thin, with both parents unlikable– but I could get behind Coogan as the workaholic absent dad far easier than I could Moore’s casting as a touring, aging and wholly irresponsible rock star mother.

This indie isn’t a weep fest but it is sentimental and sappy in most of the right ways. I think the camera’s focus on Aprile as Maisie is so restrained and perfect; we know and understand more than she does, but we do feel her sense of innocence and purity so strongly in her performance, that we feel just as hurt and abandoned, just as jostled around without answers– even though we are viewers who comprehend what she cannot, we feel so bonded with this precious little girl that it is hard to sympathize with anyone but her, and I don’t think we are meant to sympathize with anyone quite as profoundly anyway.

I thought Coogan was great, but it is really Maisies two pseudo caretakers who take charge, commanding our attention and whatever sympathy we have left to dole out: Margo, played by Vanderham, is the nanny turned stepmom who realizes soon enough that her new husband is an unfit father to Maisie, and Lincoln, played with lovable wit and charm by Skarsgard, is Maisie’s stepdad, who Moore’s Susanna marries out of retaliation, not love, and who realizes just what kind of a person Susanna is as well. It is these two characters who the audience, and Maisie, feel safest with; they both face their own issues with each respective parent they’ve been saddled with, but they come to love Maisie and vice versa, and this is probably the most satisfying aspect of the film.

However, It takes a long time for us to experience any such satisfaction; instead, we follow, tiresomely, Maisie’s painfully subtle experience of a not so subtle spiral, passed off on even complete strangers at one point in the film. I kept saying to myself “this poor girl” throughout the entire thing, feeling frustrated and sad for our little protagonist. I think all of those emotions, though, are deeply necessary or at least understandable.

My real issues were the following. Julianne Moore as Susanna, was not only annoying due to the character being written in that way, but also just because she didn’t fit, casting-wise. It was bothering me and really quite distracting to watch her curse and cry and throw tantrums and be a punk singer, because as amazing of an actress I feel she is, it just seemed awkward and annoying to see her have to try so hard. I also felt the film dragged, which is not to say it was ever boring really, but rather just slightly repetitive, any escalation being cut off quickly time and time again with similar mini-climaxes, and I feel like that’s probably how things would be if this divorce story were true, but there were moments where part of me wanted certain things to happen quicker or for someone to just call child services already. And as much pain as we may see behind Aprile’s big eyes in the moments where she says nothing but conveys so much somehow anyway, I kind of still wanted her to say something (anything, really)!

But, all that being said, the film is well-made and (mostly) well acted, and it pulls on some heartstrings for sure. Perhaps my frustration with the film as a film is merely a mis-projection of the frustration we are meant to feel with the content of it, but I am pleased to say its ending was happy and, specifically, just what the audience wanted the whole time, I’d assume.

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6 thoughts on “Review: What Maisie Knew

  1. Still haven’t seen this but I’m glad you found positives because I put it on my “films to look out for list” for 2013 posted early last year. Ironically, I may have “looked out for it” but I haven’t seen it yet. Looked great from the early word and trailer. Sounds like a worthwhile couple of hours.

    • Yeah it definitely was worth it I think, it’s really well made and well acted (even though I didn’t like Julianne Moore’s casting, she was still good). I liked it, I just didn’t love it, and that may be nothing more than personal taste– it is, after all, at many points upsetting.

  2. Glad to see that you give Onata Apriele some praise for this. For being at that age, she does very well I did not have any issues with Julianne Moore throwing tantrums, but I did find it hard buying into that she was a punk rock singer. Great review

    • She did wonderfully, she is so small and quiet but deeply affecting in this eerie way, and that really carried the movie for me. I think the punk rock singer characteristic was what was hardest for me to buy into as well with Moore, definitely. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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