What does a child go through when their parents break up? What Maisie Knew is a newly released independent film directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel that captures the child's eye view perfectly. The film shows us poignantly that good parents put themselves second, and their child or children first, and what happens when parents aren't capable of doing so.
The film is a retelling of the 1897 Henry James novel. It tells the story from the point of view of 7 year old Maisie. Her parents love her, but are almost completely self-absorbed with their work, and their bitter break-up and legal fight for custody. Maisie's mother, Susana, is a aging rock singer, who is mostly unlikable and broken. She is played by Julianne Moore. Maisie's father is Beale, an aging art dealer who is having trouble getting work. He is played by Steve Coogan.
Many of the shots in the film artfully show things from Maisie's eye level. Just like childhood, Maisie's life is shown in brief fragments: playing with turtles in Central Park in New York where she lives, participating in class with her classmates, waiting for a parent who doesn't show up for drop off or pick up, playing with a toy, hearing her parents berate each other. Onita Aprile is the very special young actress who plays Maisie, simply and without sentimentality. Her big, beautiful brown eyes say it all. No dialogue is needed at times as you can see Maisie trying to make sense of what is happening.
One of the standout scenes involves Maisie hearing a florist delivery person bring flowers for her, and finding that her dad put them in the kitchen trash without telling her they ever arrived. Later she tiptoes into the kitchen, and finds the bouquet and card from her mom. She hides the flowers in her closet. When the nanny finds them there, Maisie explains that her dad must have been allergic to them. She's caught in the pull of loyalty to each of her parents, and they so clearly hate each other. It makes your heart break.
Both of Maisie's parents remarry. Alexander Skarsgard gives a remarkable performance as Lincoln, the young bartender who marries her mother. Lincoln is present and gives his whole attention to Maisie in the time he spends with her that is deeply moving and instructive. Lincoln reminds us how much children need play, and how joining with them in their world to draw, notice turtles, or play Monopoly helps children to cope and heal.
Maisie's dad marries her young Scottish nanny, Margo, played well by Joanna Vanderham. Margo is tender, kind, and reliably present. Both of the stepparents are, ironically, more reliable, caring, and emotionally supportive of Maisie than either of her natural parents, who are caught up with their own careers and their hatred of each other.
What Maisie Knew is a touching film that reminds us that childhood is fleeting, children need our protection, attention, and stability no matter what is happening in our lives. Loving a child is not enough. We must care, ultimately, more about what happens to the children than we do about expressing our anger or sadness over our own adult relationship failure. Transcending self is probably one of the most important aspects of being a good enough parent, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in.
As it turns out, Maisie knew way too much. I hope this film will inspire and educate other parents about not losing the focus in any divorce, which should be getting the children safely through it with protecting as much of their childhood as can possibly be done.