What Maisie Knew is a pretty faithful modern adaptation of a Henry James novel written in 1897, that just goes to show that there have always been people who shouldn’t be allowed to have children. The Maisie of the title is a 6-year-old New Yorker, through whose eyes the story is told and who you really want to kidnap to save her from her horrible, selfish parents. This is one of those films that makes you really uncomfortable from the first frame until the end, but is peopled with great actors and characters so you can’t dismiss it.
From the beginning, the background noise of Maisie’s young life is her parents (Julianna Moore and Steve Coogan) incessantly screaming at one another oblivious to its effect on her. And soon they are divorced and switch to using her as a pawn in their on-going battles. Mom is a rock diva, and Dad is some sort of businessman who cannot seem to be away from his cell for an instant. Once split-custody begins Maisie discovers her sweet nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) is living at Dad’s, and soon they’re married. So Mom marries herself a young bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), and as it turns out, Lincoln actually looks out for Maisie (as does Margo) and treats her the way a parent should. And his relationship with her lifts the whole movie in the way she responds to finally being taken care of by a loving adult.
The intelligent screenplay doesn’t hold back, and Julianna Moore and Steve Coogan are amazing as a couple of narcissists who each have moments that acknowledge an acceptance of their limited abilities to love their child the way she deserves. And the actress who plays Maisie (Onata Aprile) is another of the little girls I hope to watch as she matures. Her performance is so innocent and subtly aware at once, it is simply heartbreaking at times. What Maisie Knew is not easy to watch without wanting to scream (or call Child Services), and that is no doubt the reaction it is going for. I’d say go see it, but be prepared to be disturbed.