One of the best things about Netflix (and similar digital streaming services) is the opportunity to see movies or shows that you may have never even heard of without it. This is the first of what I expect to be an ongoing series of sleeper picks now available on Netflix that you may want to check out (along with a few words why).
“What Maisie Knew” is a modern retelling of a 19th century Henry James novel about the effect of a divorce on the divorcing couple’s young child. Every scene of the movie is shown from Maisie’s point of view, so, like a real child in that situation, you only witness parts of the arguments and events leading to the divorce and its aftermath. The parents, international art-dealing dad Beale (Steve Coogan) and aging rock-singer mom Susanna (Julianne Moore), are either constantly fighting with each other or so absorbed with their own pursuits that Maisie becomes an afterthought. That is, unless her parents want to use her to inflict pain on the other. As the movie continues, two surrogate parents emerge: Margo (Johanna Vanderham), Maisie’s nanny-turned-stepmother who marries Beale shortly after the divorce, and Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a bartender whom Susanna barely seems to know but marries seemingly out of spite almost immediately after Beale’s remarriage. The rest of the movie shows Maisie try to live out as normal a childhood as possible as she is shuffled around from person to person and home to home.
While “What Maisie Knew” isn’t light entertainment, it’s an immensely satisfying film. Onata Aprile, the child actress who was six-years-old when filming started, is a wonder. One expects that, as a young child and a newcomer, she is not really acting as much as just living in the moments depicted in the film. The filmmakers expertly jump her back and forth between the abnormal moments brought on by the circumstances of divorce (shuttling back and forth between homes, having her parents talk badly about their exes) and the normal parts of childhood, like being in her classroom or playing with her toys. As she is in every scene, she has to carry the movie, and certainly does. While Aprile is the unexpected star, the rest of the cast is excellent. As you are expected to, you hate Coogan’s self-absorbed Beale, except for one fleeting moment when he silently seems to realize what he’s lost and forced Maisie to lose—a fantastic moment of acting. You don’t hate Moore’s Susanna as much; Moore plays her with a manic quality suggesting some (probably drug-related) mental illness that keeps her from making a single good decision. Vanderham (who I’d never seen prior to this) conveys a sense of growth from quietly resentful that her new marriage isn’t all she hoped to openly willing to take responsibility for her stepdaughter. And Skarsgard, as Lincoln, the only completely likeable adult character in the movie, is wonderfully winsome as Lincoln starts in way over his head (for example, Maisie has to teach him that he has to hold her hand when they cross the street) but succeeds in winning our hearts because he, unlike Maisie’s parents, always tries to keeps Maisie’s interests the main thing.
While the movie does paint Beale and Susanna more as types than as fully-fleshed characters, this is not necessarily a flaw. While there are certainly divorces that result from by things like abuse, adultery, and abandonment, the biblical truth is that divorce is not the way things are supposed to be, but is the result of man’s sinful fall from grace and subsequent hardening of his heart (Matthew 19:3-9). This message, even if unintended by the filmmakers, comes through strongly in the selfish destructiveness of both parents and the heartbreaking effects it has on their child. But the movie does provide some hope—not in full restoration of this family, but in the emergence of other relationships built not on selfish ambition, but on selfless grace and love. “What Maisie Knew,” as difficult as the subject matter could be at times, was one of the best films released in 2013. I hope you’ll check it out.
Rated R for “some language.” A detailed description of potentially objectionable content is available here.