What Maisie Knew
Directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee
The filmmakers can move Henry James's novel of Victorian decadence to contemporary New York City because the underlying concept is timeless: some people are just really bad fucking parents. In this loose adaptation, Maisie is the small child of a rock singer played by Julianne Moore and an art dealer played by Steve Coogan—people who have come to despise each other. Both actors exceptionally craft two cancerously self-possessed people, petty and hysterical, destroying each other and everyone around them—but not their child, because other people care about her. (The movie is an ode, really, to the step-parent.) Moore in particular is a marvel: creepily possessive, ickily manipulative, repulsively vindictive. But it's not her movie.
Directors Siegel and McGehee go back-and-forth between making almost classically Hollywood films (The Deep End, Bee Season) and more unconventional ones (Uncertainty, Suture), and this one is an example of the former; its child's-eye view of adulthood—the camera is often placed low, on Maisie's level—owes something to Truffaut. The soapy plot, unfolding in fights, divorces, recouplings, and legal battles, is never unclear, but we only get the details as a kid might, in snippets: just a few words of a phone call before being shuffled into another room, a few words of an argument before getting sent outside. It's impressively economical, an assemblage of artfully selected bits, and underscores how children probably know more than we think they do.
Aside from the smart construction, there's real heart here, too—it's a genuinely sweet film, held back by the directors from toppling into melodrama or sentimentality. The actors also do their part, especially Alexander Skarsgård as Moore's post-breakup boytoy, who puts his whole body into the role: he's so slouched he seems to fold in on himself, afraid to literally open up. And then there's Maisie, newcomer Onata Aprile, anchoring both the film and the frame, usually with her steely gaze, longing for stability. You really want her to find it.
Opens May 3