Monday, August 19, 2013

What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 2013)

The best film I've seen this year so far?  What Maisie Knew, an incredibly effecting movie (apparently based on a Henry James story that I've never heard of) about a young girl chronically neglected by her incredibly selfish parents. 

Young Onata Aprile plays the title character, and it's really an amazing performance.  All due respect to Hailee Stanfield of True Grit and Quevenzhane Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild, who both gave very good performances, but this performance is on a different level.  Stanfield was basically doing a very adult performance, and while Wallis was required to be much less mannered, and much more like a real kid, she was still stuck delivering these long soliloquies.  Aprile seriously acts just like a real life kid.  She responds very in-the-moment-ly to events that she doesn't entirely understand.  Like most kids, she simply fails to recognize the responses that people are expecting from her.  I don't mean to make this out to be a major part of the movie, but when you see Joanna Vanderham trying to have a conversation with the kid who is examining some new toys, you recognize it as a very real, human interaction.

Maisie has normalized so much that we in the audience recognize as an awful situation, because it's all she knows.  Her parents are always screaming in the other room, which seems normal to her.  But when they finally divorce, Maisie's world gets worse.  The two parents are simultaneously uninterested in having much of a relationship with her, and very interested in using custody to stab each other in the gut.  By the middle of the film, you look at Aprile's face, and she just conveys this sense of exhaustion.  It's incredibly sad.

The two parents are well played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan.  The mother comes off a little worse, her combination of wanting as little responsibility for her child as possible and wanting to be the center of the child's attention seeming exceptionally callous, but the father is even more neglectful, barely interested in the kid when they're in the same room.  I'm not sure if I could have made it through the film if not for the reviewers I heard discussing it revealing that at no point does any physical harm come to the child, so I'll pass that datum along to you.  There is even a happy ending--one which sort of stretches credibility in the characters, but considering the emotional carnage you are forced to endure up to that point, I'd call it more of a "merciful ending."  This movie stuck in my head for days after I saw it, and I really want more people to see it and experience that unpleasant feeling themselves.

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