Collaborative film direction can be a tricky proposition, which often results in a disjointed final product – a movie which appears to be the sum of two distinct parts rather than a coherent whole. However, when done expertly, such an approach can be beneficial to the final result; as the saying goes “Two heads are better than one.” Happily, this proves to be the case with What Maisie Knew. . Long-time collaborators Scott McGehee and David Siegel guide the audience serenely through a lovely, if selective and contemporary, adaptation of Henry James’ novel of the same name.
The narrative moves along at its own pace; it does not speed up to add a sense of impetus, nor does it rush towards any kind of resolution. Instead, What Maisie Knew flows at an even speed, mirroring the titular character’s own understanding of her own familial situation.
After a prolonged introduction, it becomes clear that 7 year old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is going to be passed between her newly separated parents who share joint custody. From this point forward Maisie’s life apparently exists in ten day “windows”, which are punctuated by the increasingly heart-wrenching hand-overs between the different households. Her father, Beale (Steve Coogan), clearly loves his daughter, but is too caught up in his career to spend any time with her, so most of his parental duties fall to his new partner Margo (Joanna Vanderham). Things are no better with Maisie’s mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), who is, quite frankly, more interested in outdoing and arguing with her ex than providing for her daughter.
A truly despicable character, Susanna is motivated by suspicion and jealousy, feelings which lead to unexpected improvements in Maisie’s life. Trying to compete with Beale, Susanna marries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), who ends up, like Margo, doing the majority of the parenting. As Maisie is continually moved from pillar to post, Lincoln and Margo form the only continuity in her life, her points of safety who are only there because of her parents bickering.
That the story progresses quite predictably doesn’t really matter. The real gem in this film is Aprile, who is so sweet and innocent that, especially at those moments when her parents forget her, the viewer wants to reach into the screen and help her. Aprile dominates the film, and her performance is highly reminiscent of that of Annika Wedderkop in Danish drama The Hunt (2012). She has a particular affinity with Skarsgard, who is warm and lovable in this role; their screen time together is filled with tenderness and is a joy to watch. In fact, it is quite noticeable throughout that Margo and Lincoln, rather than Maisie’s real parents, are the ones who would give up everything and do anything for her.
As the film is titled What Maisie Knew, so the camera is anchored to the young star almost exclusively; the audience only get to see what is going on with the adults when she is around them. Of course, an adult audience can infer more from the situation than a child could. However, this is a truly charming film, with an endearing young lead and a very potent, inferred moral for the current climate where adoption is still difficult and especially for gay, disabled, single, and ethnically diverse individuals. Maisie is better off without her birth parents; and the welfare of a child, rather than the identity of the caregiver, should be the only important factor when deciding a child’s future.