05/10/2013 09:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Popcorn Preview: What Maisie Knew

Film: What Maisie Knew (2012)
Cast includes: Julianne Moore (Crazy, Stupid, Love.), Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People), Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood), Joanna Vanderham (Young James Herriot), Onata Aprile (Yellow, The History of Future Folk)
Director: Scott McGehee & David Siegel (The Deep End, Uncertainty)
Genre: Drama (99 minutes)

"Wanna sleep with Mommy tonight?" Mommy's rendition of Rock-a-bye Baby is quite good. We soon learn that Mommy is a middle-aged rock singer, trying to keep a career going. "The pizza man's here," Maisie shouts, but her parents don't hear her. They're busy arguing. There are cutting remarks about mid-life crisis and Susanna's less-than-stellar career. Maisie and Margo, her nanny, eat pizza together and play tic-tac-toe. When Maisie gets home from kindergarten, she finds her mom is changing the locks but we don't know why until that night. "Is that Daddy?" "Open the damn door... You're a fucking head case." "Fuck you," screams Susanna. The conflict spills over to Maisie's school, but Susanna snatches Maisie away as Daddy's walking out the door with her. Maisie's friend Zoe is spending the night, and before her mom leaves, she makes Zoe promise to behave... whatever that means... dress up, eat whatever, stay up late... the girls even spend some time watching Susanna and her friends party... not a scene Zoe is used to. "Don't cry Zoe," Maisie tries to comfort her. But eventually, Zoe's mom has to come get her.

"Her mom's a total Nazi, anyway," says Susanna. She probably can't ask Zoe's mom to be a character witness at the divorce hearings. Before they question Maisie, Susanna tries to coach her on what to say about her dad, but Susanne can't be there when Maisie's questioned. Whatever Maisie does say, it doesn't win sole custody for Susanna. By this time, we're pretty sure the court did the right thing. But when Daddy takes Maisie, we soon see that his business phone calls take most of his attention. Thankfully, Margo's at Dad's apartment and she's done an excellent job of fixing up Maisie's room. There's some talk about the three of them going on an excursion to Italy. Naturally, Susanna hires a new nanny... "not some tramp with a Daddy fixation." When Daddy and Margo get married, Maisie gets to be flower girl, but she's no longer included on the Italy trip. "Are you sure your mother knows she's supposed to pick you up?" Maisie waits patiently on the bench after school. When Lincoln shows up to get her, the school won't release her to a stranger. "I'm married to Susanna," he tells them. "I'm sort of like... Maisie's stepfather." He says to Maisie, "Remember me?" (He was at one of Susanne's parties.)

Witnessing parental malpractice is upsetting, to say the least. Much of the psychological tension in this film is likely to seem familiar, but we're used to seeing it from an adult perspective. What Maisie Knew gives us the perspective of a 6-year-old, played amazingly by Onita Aprile. It's a modern-day retelling of an 1890 Henry James novel by the same name. With selfish, spiteful adults using her as a pawn, Maisie is too young to stand up for herself. She's too young to see this behavior as anything but normal. We're on edge through most of the film because we're aware how precarious her situation is. Although Susanna says she married Lincoln for Maisie's sake, Susanna feels threatened when anyone else seems to be connecting with her. "You don't get a bonus for making her fall in love with you."

3 popped kernels (Scale: 0-4)
A young girl is a pawn in her parents' nasty custody battle

Popcorn Profile
Rated: R (Language, drugs)
Audience: Grown-ups
Distribution: Art house
Mood: Sober
Tempo: Cruises comfortably
Visual Style: Nicely varnished realism
Character Development: Engaging
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Thought provoking

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