What Maisie Knew
"What Maisie Knew"
It’s often an easy way to handicap your film, by centering it on a child character and demanding a great deal from the young actor. By definition, children are not fully-formed people, but a character in a film must be either fully-formed to yield proper dramatic results, or so uniquely authentic that it’s like catching chaos in a bottle, an approach that can create a serious cognitive dissonance when youth collides with seasoned actors. Remarkably, such chaos is present in young Onata Aprile, the title character of “What Maisie Knew,” an affecting new contemporary drama that never once feels phony when the camera is fixed on her face.

The source material for “What Maisie Knew” is actually a Henry James novel, though directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel flip it to modern day, most of the early action centered in an impossibly gorgeous New York apartment. Lifted over the city like a floating bubble, this spacious home is almost like a kingdom for the precocious child, who is unfortunately handcuffed to two of the most unfortunate adults in the world. James’ novel may be an indictment of polite English society, but it’s difficult not to notice how well it translates to 2013 America, with Maisie caught between an aging rock star and a dogged, selfish financial manager.

 What Maisie Knew
Maisie spends a great deal of time with mother Susanna, a loving if not exactly doting matriarch who nonetheless peoples their loft with scores of “industry” types on certain evenings. Raising a child doesn’t seem to be as hard as maintaining her rock n roll lifestyle, and her jet-black fingernails, raccoon eye makeup and casual exasperation suggests the lived-in seriousness of a functioning alcoholic. Julianne Moore, a fierce actress who nonetheless seems like a dice roll as to whether she’ll be in-command or off-the-handle, imbues this characterization with a nasty sense of gravity, particularly when she launches into one of her booming, hallway-filling expletive-fueled rages.

As the dominant parent, Susanna buckles down on each line as if she knows it’s something of a bad idea. When she asks how Maisie’s day at school was, there’s the conflicting sense that she honestly cares how her little girl is, but is avoiding the acknowledgement that she disdains school and other parents. The suggestion is that she is an artist who hasn’t learned to control her filter, so by now Maisie understands that her mother has something of a monstrous side: Susanna is able to go from zero to “Get-the-fuck-out” within five seconds, regardless as to whether her daughter is present. Moore’s skill is in finding the heart between the margins, illustrating a reality that few would bother to cite about themselves; she loves her daughter, but that simply cannot get in the way of how she loves herself. As contemporary as “What Maisie Knew” can be, there isn’t a single moment where Susanna is showing any home footage of her obviously-smart child, but she seems to have stacks and stacks of her own smoky-club performances to replay loudly.

 What Maisie Knew
Maisie’s father Beale is a jet-setting businessman; he’s meant to be an art dealer, but he’s clearly one of those types in movies that endlessly yammers on his phone as if he’s the most important person in the room. Steve Coogan is a breathlessly talented comedian with definite chops, but he’s been shorthand for yuppie British scum in a number of supporting roles by now, and it never gets any more noxious. Coogan’s great here, of course: Susanna seems more self-destructive than anything else, while Beale is casually oblivious to even the most obvious signs of turmoil, placing his work before everything else. It’s not a particularly showy role, and it’s his scenes with Aprile that hammer home how these two odious personalities treat their daughter as if she was a prop. McGehee and Siegel respond in kind by shooting scenes that turn Maisie into a piece of furniture, constantly facing away from the camera, as we’re forced to watch these adults bicker like children.

The cumulative effect is dramatically effective to the point of being soul-crushing. Perhaps it’s the wide, trusting face of Aprile: her Maisie doesn’t act out or throw a tantrum, or even really cry. Instead, she is caught in scene after scene of being at the mercy of quite possibly the year’s most ghastly domestic couple, with the camera opting to include her in every outburst as the unspoken victim of these battles. Soon, Maisie literally becomes furniture as these jerks separate, but even in the care of Susanna’s dim but functional new husband (Alexander Skarsgard) and Beale’s college-age trophy wife (Joanna Vanderham), the specter of these two selfish twits remain.

At some point, you have to wonder if it’s all worth it. “What Maisie Knew” is an affecting movie right until the very end, but is it really worth breaking your heart? Sweet Maisie deserves better than to be a trinket for these two entitled fools, as would anyone, and after the eighth or ninth yelling match, it’s clear McGehee and Siegel want you to be in the eye of the storm, to see and feel each showdown, each cutting insult, each room-rattling screen from the volcanic Moore and each passive-aggressive response from the daft Coogan. The James source material follows Maisie into her teenage years, but the film stops much earlier, and it’s probably the best choice: you don’t need any parental instincts to want to reach onscreen and protect this child from such acidic people, and any more of “What Maisie Knew” would tear your heart clean out. [B+]