“They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other.” Henry James wrote that just before the turn of the 20th century, but 21st century children of divorce don’t have to squint to see themselves in young Maisie, the ball batted back and forth between brawling exes. It’s no wonder screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright spied expiration-date-free drama in the 1897 source novel; with minimal refurbishment, What Maisie Knew makes an easy transition to contemporary Manhattan.
Directed by longtime team Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Bee Season), the film begins ham-handedly and ends in a puddle of mawkishness, but most everything in between is sharply observed and wounding to watch. It opens with multiple iterations of the film’s themes, as unsubtle as three brass gongs: first, the lullaby “Rock-a-bye Baby,” with its intimation of coming doom; then a game of tic-tac-toe (choosing sides); then a close-up of a kite, tangled in electrical wires (wanna guess who the kite represents?). Child actress Onata Aprile is a tiny-bodied stunner as 6-year-old Maisie, who’s caught in a custody battle between her rockstar mom Susanna (Moore) and her art dealer dad Beale (Coogan). Even with the muffled noise of adults shouting a room away marking the soundtrack to her childhood, Maisie is forgiving and nearly unflappable. The film’s first devastating scene (not to be its last) takes place when Maisie’s pal, sleeping over, tearily panics at all the grownups acting like children. As the feeling of safety palpably drains from her face, it is Maisie who comforts her – Maisie’s never known true security in her own home.
Maisie’s parents are not cartoonishly cruel, just terribly negligent: They love their daughter, but indifferently. Susanna cuddles Maisie like a child besotted with a puppy but bored with the actual care and maintenance of the dog. Beale is all big smiles and five minutes of his time; beyond that, he doesn’t know how to talk to her, or turn off his phone. Actors often allow themselves to be ugly for a role – a prosthetic is the surest way to woo the Academy, after all – but emotional ugliness, especially in relation to a child, is a rarer thing, and Moore and Coogan never pander with their performances. Susanna and Beale really are just the worst, and Moore and Coogan, to their credit, never try to shine them up as anything else.
Both parents impulsively marry new, much younger partners, acquired more for child care purposes than out of romantic or sexual love. (The film’s time span, much compressed from the novel, is vague; an offhand remark suggests both marriages happen within a few weeks of Susanna and Beale’s breakup, which strains credibility.) Beale marries the pretty, former nanny, Margo (Vanderham), while Susanna takes up with a bartender named Lincoln (Skarsgård); as the de facto primary caregivers, the new spouses are frequently thrust together, and Maisie, for the first time in her life, enjoys a stable, if cobbled together, family unit.
And therein lies the problem: The filmmakers are very good at rendering the day-to-day realities of Maisie’s metropolitan, pinballing existence – how she is so often forgotten, how she is adept with chopsticks, how she instinctively goes to hold the near-stranger’s hand when she crosses the street, because, well, who the hell else is going to take care of her? – but the film stumbles in its sunset stretch, a saccharine hash set squarely over a trap door. It gives the illusion of a conclusion and cuts to black before it has to answer for how many more questions have been raised.