What Maisie Knew: Storytelling Done Right [Guest Post]

05.15.13

Onata Aprile What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew is a gem of a movie. Its subject matter – divorce, family dysfunction, loss of innocence – is the stuff of made-for-TV movies. But, accompanied by a talented cast, Scott McGehee and David Siegel manage to navigate the titular character’s story with great skill and empathy.

Maisie is six years old. Mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a has-been, middle-aged rocker who dreams of returning to her days of glory, while father Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer with the attention span of a squirrel. The two are engaged in the aftermath of a bitter divorce, where Maisie serves as a pawn in their constant struggle. Alexander Skarsgård (Lincoln) and Joanna Vanderham (Margo) provide supporting roles as Susanna’s well-meaning boyfriend-cum-husband and Beale’s nanny-turned-wife, respectively. While unrelated to Maisie, they care for her deeply and provide the support she desperately needs.

The first half of the movie is dedicated to Susanna and Beale fighting over time with Maisie, both in and out of court. Any good editor would tell you that these first 40 minutes could be reduced to a simple 5-minute scene, but McGehee and Siegel use the repetitive nature of the struggle to underscore Maisie’s perseverance and uncanny maturity.

In one scene, Susanna succeeds in gaining custody of Maisie, only to take her home and immediately leave her alone while she complains to a friend about what an irresponsible parent Beale is. In yet another scene, Beale is scheduled to pick up Maisie for his court-ordered time with her. Maisie waits patiently in the lobby, but he never shows. Notice a pattern?

Throughout the movie, Maisie maintains her composure, never buckling under the pressure of her parents’ need to use her as a bargaining chip. When Susanna pries about Beale’s life, Maisie is careful to answer with a meek, “I don’t know.” And yet, she sees everything and knows what’s at stake. In the heartbreaking opening scene, a pizza delivery man shows up at the door while Maisie’s parents are fighting about money in the background. Without missing a beat, Maisie runs upstairs to her piggy bank and returns with a wad of bills for the delivery guy. “Here’s your tip,” she says with a smile.

The nature of love, and especially of that between parent and child, is a major theme throughout the movie. While Maisie’s parents fight tooth and nail for custody, their actions belie any claim to actually wanting to care for their daughter. Both parents are extremely possessive of Maisie, and the courts are alternatively a source of validation, or a site of great pain and struggle.

In the final thirty minutes, the movie reaches its boiling point as Maisie falls asleep in a bar and is literally passed along from person to person until she ends up at home with one of the female bartenders. Upon waking up, Maisie panics and wants to go home, though her parents are nowhere to be found. Lincoln and Margo provide Maisie with stability from this point forward, and for the first time we see her be playful. In short, she is allowed to be a child.

If you enjoy a great story and fantastic acting, watch this movie immediately. Julianne Moore deserves great credit for playing what can only be described as a truly ugly character. McGehee and Siegel are fair, though, and grant her a moment of redemption at the end.

The only gripe I have about the movie is that the fantastically talented Onata Aprile is given sixth billing in the credits. Once you watch the movie, you’ll see why this is such a crime.

Thanks to William for this wonderful review.