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SIFF ADVANCE: What Maisie Knew - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
SIFF ADVANCE: What Maisie Knew
Directing: B
Acting: A-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

Maisie's parents are total douchebags. That seems to be what co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel want us to glean from What Maisie Knew, anyway. They don't particularly seem all that intent on revealing exactly what she knew. But they kept the title from the 19th-century Henry James novel on which this is loosely based. Maybe the book makes it more clear.

Onata Aprile, who plays Maisie, certainly must know something. She's one memorable little actress. This is a story of her parents' relationship devolving into petty nonsense, and it's all from her perspective. I don't recall there being any scene she wasn't in. There's no legal drama, which is a relief. If you want that you can rent Kramer vs. Kramer.

The parents are played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan. Given the circumstances of the story, perhaps they don't need chemistry. That said, while it's easy to see how these two people's relationship falls apart, it's not so easy to see what they saw in each other to begin with. Both of them are self-absorbed, and neglectful parents from the start. We never find out exactly what the dad does for a living, only that it involves trips to England. We know why the mom is often gone for long periods: she's an aging rocker on a national tour. We hear some snippets of her music. It's convincing as tired music by someone well past her prime; I'll give it that.

Much of What Maisie Knew is difficult to watch just because of these horrible parents. Both Moore and Coogan make valiant attempts at humanizing them. The script makes it much easier for Julianne Moore to do so. This over-worked mom flies off the handle at times but at least she has moments of clarity and self-awareness. The dad never really seems to. Either way, it makes an impact. At the festival screening I attended, an audience member stood up to say he was a recently retired superior court judge, and he thought this film should be shown to parents in the beginning stages of divorce -- as an example of what not to do.

So that leads us to the question: does that make for a great movie? In this case, not really. It makes for a relatively good one. Some of the choices both parents make are pretty jaw-dropping, and you begin to wonder when someone is going to call CPS. Are there really parents like this out there? Sadly, there are. It does make for engaging drama.

The positive side of Maisie's situation is her parents' new spouses, Lincoln and Margo (Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham, respectively). Both of them, independently, forge a connection with Maisie, and ultimately pay far more attention to her than either of her own parents do. A sad situation to be sure, but at least Maisie's got some good, attentive adults in her life. The parents both move on to sabotaging their new relationships. In a particularly cringe-worthy moment, Moore's Susanna turns to Lincoln and says, "You don't get a bonus for making her love you more."

What Maisie Knew is not a particularly enjoyable movie. It's cut through with sadness, even when you feel good about Lincoln and Margo spending quality time with Maisie -- which is as a result of her parents' neglect. That whole dynamic gets a little tiresome.

But, things get tied up in a satisfactory way, without really letting the parents off the hook. The acting is impressive across the board; Julianne Moore is particularly memorable, unsurprisingly -- but if anything makes this movie worth watching, it's little Onata Aprile. Maisie has an emotional consistency that is somewhat unrealistic (what kid is that subdued at all times, unless she has an emotional disorder?), but I won't fault Onata for that. She's clearly playing the part with an understanding of how it's intended, and she has undeniable charisma, a child-star precociousness without any Dakota Fanning creepiness.

Julianne Moore, Onata Aprile and Alexander Skarsgård are a mix-and-match family in WHAT MAISIE KNEW.

Overall: B
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