Divorce is common enough these days that people are familiar with what an ugly and painful process it can be, which probably explains why most people wouldn't rush to see a movie about it in their free time. Still, there have been some great serious and comedic movies about divorce (Yahoo! has a nice list), including Kramer vs. Kramer, which swept the 1980 Oscars with wins for best actor and actress, best director, best picture, and best adapted screenplay.
However, there have been few films that look at the effect divorce has on young children, and almost none that do it from the child's perspective. That's one of the things that makes What Maisie Knew such a fascinating and touching film, along with the fact that the little girl who plays seven-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is in every scene and is shockingly good in all of them. Another surprise is that despite feeling totally contemporary, What Maisie Knew is actually based on a book by Henry James that's over a century old. Watch my ReThink Review of What Maisie Knew below (transcript following).
"These days, I feel like a bit of an oddball when I tell people that my parents are actually still happily married. Divorce is more common now than it ever has been, but in 1897, author Henry James wrote a novel called What Maisie Knew, which he wrote from the perspective of a little girl named Maisie whose utterly irresponsible parents go through a bitter divorce and are forced to share custody of their daughter. It's hard to believe that someone over a century ago, when divorce was more rare, would have such a firm grasp on what divorce looks like for a child caught in the middle. But the modern-day adaptation of What Maisie Knew from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel shows that James was more than prescient, with themes and sensitivities that feel so thoroughly modern that this film should be required viewing for all parents, divorced or not.
Aside from the story's 19th century roots, the most amazing thing about What Maisie Knew is Onata Aprile, the little girl who plays seven-year-old Maisie and gives an extraordinary performance as engaging and subtle as anything you're likely to see this year. While Maisie lives in a fancy apartment and goes to a good school in New York City, we see early on that her real problem is her parents. Her mom Susanna (played by Julianne Moore) is a hot-tempered aging rock star who resembles a less druggy Courtney Love, and Maisie's dad Beale is an inattentive art dealer played by Steven Coogan, who seems to be cornering the market on aloof British husband roles. While her parents are going tooth-and-nail in and out of court, Maisie finds solace and stability with her caring Scottish nanny Margo (played by Joanna Vanderham).
After the divorce goes through, Beale marries Margo to better his case for full custody. So Susanna responds by marrying Lincoln, a handsome if somewhat meek bartender played by Alexander Skarsgård. But despite these fairly drastic moves to get custody of Maisie, Susanna and Beale seem to view Maisie as more of an inconvenience and an impediment to them getting on with their lives, leading to lots of arguments over who should be picking Maisie up from school and who she should be staying with, often dumping her with Margo or Lincoln, who seem to be the only ones truly looking out for her.
But as I said, this is Maisie's movie, and Aprile's performance is so captivating, genuine, and real that it's easy to forget that she's acting at all. As she's alternately viewed as a football, a weapon, or a burden, we see little Maisie doing her best to figure out the situation, clamming up when she senses a parent digging for dirt on the other, searching for honesty in her parents' faces, or simply being buffeted by events she's too young to control, as we watch Maisie's faith in her parents slowly erode from one disappointment to the next. All of the performances in the film are exceptional, but it's Aprile's that will tap a deep well of sympathy that viewers like me didn't think they had.
And while I don't have kids, I think What Maisie Knew holds an important lesson for parents with young children, and especially parents going through a divorce. It shows that regardless of whatever's going on, children need their guardians to be consistent and keep their word, but just as importantly, to be present. Not just physically, but mentally in the moment with them in whatever's going on, whether it's playing, drawing, or simply observing the world with them. And from the way Maisie lights up around Margo and especially Lincoln, you can see that this is all Maisie really wants, which is sadly what her parents refuse to provide. What Maisie Knew is a terrific movie with one of the best child performances I've ever seen, and I'm sure it'll be a film I think of for years to come when I'm with my nephews or hopefully kids of my own."