SIFF Film Review – What Maisie Knew
Divorce is one of the unfortunate realities of modern society, with over 50% of marriages statistically not making it, my family being one of them. As difficult as it is for the couple, the impact on any children is even more profound and long-lasting. This is at least in part because they may not really understand what is going on or why it is happening. With the film What Maisie Knew, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel take on the challenge of telling the story of a family’s dissolution from the perspective of the six-year-old daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile).
To build on this idea, the filmmakers go to great lengths to make the film feel like it is from her perspective, by using techniques such as shooting at her level, making sure she is privy to all the conversations, and making her the focal point of the action rather than just a point of contention for other characters. It is a weird comparison, but the film that immediately comes to my mind is Cloverfield, which also takes an otherwise traditional concept and twists it to present it from a new perspective. Monster movies usually use an omnipotent camera perspective to tell the story from above the action, but Cloverfield put the camera right in the thick of the action, and only told the story using what was visible to the characters during the film. Likewise, family dramas usually make the viewer privy to all the drama, but here you are forced to extrapolate what is happening from the information that is given, just as Maisie is forced to do.
I was shocked to learn the film is based upon a novel by Henry James from 1897. The film does have a few differences (setting it in present day, the amount of time that passes during the story, and the end), but a lot of the novel’s core story remains remarkably present. The fact that material from so long ago—a time with dramatically different cultural customs—can remain so relevant is quite an impressive feat. The film is a bit more positive in its treatment of the characters and its ending, but the experience of a young girl being trapped between a rock and a hard place continues to speak profoundly.
The real gem of the movie is Aprile, who, despite being just seven years old, puts on a very touching performance. The film doesn’t set out to portray her as a victim or as being damaged by the contentious relationship between her parents, but rather just tries to tell the story as a matter of fact. It is painful to watch the ripple effect of her parents’ actions on her, as you can see she only understands a limited amount of what is really going on. That is one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie—while it is from the perspective of Maisie, it works on two levels. First, there is the straightforward story that is unfolding between her parents, played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, as their relationship continues to unravel. The second level is watching the nuance in Aprile’s performance as she responds to the different situations, and trying to understand what she is cognizant of from the events she witnesses.
The film certainly has parallels with Beasts of the Southern Wild, because, much like with Quvenzhané Wallis, the line between acting and reality blurs. Aprile likely won’t get the acclaim of Wallis since she isn’t left to singlehandedly carry the story, but she still puts forth one of the best child performances in recent years. Additionally, Aprile is a more passive participant in the story, but her nuance is probably more highly developed, something will help the replay ability of the movie.
One of the smartest decisions McGehee and Siegel made was to surround Aprile with an incredibly talented cast. Besides Moore and Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham also play important roles as the significant others of Maisie’s parents. Their relationships between each other, Maisie’s parents, and Maisie herself play a complex drama and speak to how complicated modern family dynamics are for the children. The dynamics play an important part in the underlying discussion of “what is family” that the movie touches upon, something that confronts our relationships a lot these days due to issues such as religious beliefs, politics, sexuality, race, etc. No longer is biology the sole determining factor. McGehee and Siegel are not newcomers to the area of dysfunction with families, as many of their previous movies (Bee Season, The Deep End, Uncertainty) have touched upon different aspects of this problem. Their expertise in weaving within the subtleties of this genre helps the discord in the movie resonate that much more strongly.
With the exception of the ending being a bit of a cop out, What Maisie Knew is an impressive drama. The performance of Onata Aprile alone makes this worth checking out. The film isn’t anything unusual, there are no shocking twists, but it is a nice spin on an otherwise tired storyline.
Final Grade: A-
Also, be sure to check out our interview with directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel from SIFF 2013.