I’ve always liked the Tolstoy quote that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I know it gets overused, but there’s a lot of truth to it, especially when it comes to unhappy families in literature and film. Sometimes unhappy families bear it in stoic silence. Sometimes they bear it in poverty or physical violence. Of course, that unhappiness can also be borne in lavish Manhattan apartments, with the accompanying emotions (and the people they effect) to be used as weapons. Such is the case with the family in What Maisie Knew, (a modernized adaptation of a Henry James novella of the same name) and the toxic environment the situation creates for the six-year-old little girl at the center of all of it.
Little Maisie (hauntingly natural newcomer Onata Aprile) is a sweet, imaginative, and scarily mature child burdened with two of the most selfish parents ever committed to film. Perhaps only growing up with Joan Crawford could have been worse. Maisie’s parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) shout expletives at each other while Maisie plays in the next room, then pretend that everything’s fine. It’s tough to watch.
After they separate, the two parents share custody of their daughter, and treat her like property to be obtained. Even the parents’ second relationships feel spiteful–Coogan marries nanny Margo, and Moore marries bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), seemingly because he just happens to be around. Only these new stepparents bring some potential hope to Maisie’s confusing, perpetually disappointing life.
“What Maisie Knew” is told entirely from Maisie’s perspective, and it feels like an honest portrayal of how a child in her situation would think, feel and behave. Onata Aprile’s striking performance as Maisie communicates much of this. She shows more in a single look than some actors five times her age, but can also speak eloquently on subjects like turtles and castles. She rocks.
Of course, while Maisie might not understand everything she sees and hears, adult audiences do, and we have two chillingly believable performances from Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan to show us the true nature of Maisie’s rotten progenitors. Coogan, of course, has always played selfish jerks well, so it’s no surprise he’s got this role down.
Smarmy jackass central casting
Moore gives an even more skin-crawling turn as Maisie’s mother Susanna. A rock star who’s beginning to age out of her prime, Susanna is desperate to be the center of attention. The mere sight of her is enough to make your heart sink.
As with most “poor little rich kid” stories, it’s hard not to notice how despite the nasty situation she’s stuck in, Maisie’s life is better than most kids who come from broken homes. She still has people who can care for her. She’s got an awesome room, impressive toys, and an excellent wardrobe. Sure, she’ll probably be in therapy for most of her life, but unlike lots of kids like her, Maisie will probably never have trouble paying for it.
Even characters that don’t live in a higher tax bracket, like Skarsgard’s Lincoln, come off a bit cleaner than they probably would in real life. Lincoln’s a bartender, but he’s a bartender at a swanky restaurant, where Maisie can sit at the bar and sip Shirley Temples without fear.
In spite of its upscale setting, What Maisie Knew is a touching drama with solid performances driving it. It’s like Kramer Vs. Kramer mixed with The Fallen Idol and the Eloise books. Maisie and her family are compelling characters, and even though they’re not real, you ache for what you know their future holds. And no matter how nice an apartment these characters live in, it doesn’t make their story any less valid for families who suffer similar situations in real life.
Take a Drink: every time Maisie’s parents fight.
Do a Shot: for every example of Susanna’s awful mothering.
During the bar scenes, Drink either a Shirley Temple, or a Glass of White Wine.
Take a Drink: every time one of Maisie’s parents uses someone for their own gain.