The title What Maisie Knew suggests provocative intrigue. Just what the f*** did Maisie know? Does she know who killed JFK? The secret to cold fusion? Did she know what you did last summer? Did she know where Osama bin Laden was hiding before Maya found out? Maybe she even knows the meaning of life. Why is Maisie holding out on us?
It turns out Maisie knew about her parents’ breakup. I guess it’s not a divorce because I don’t think they were married. Maisie (Onata Aprile) gets jostled back and forth between her volatile rock n’ roll mom Susanna (Julianne Moore) and her frequently traveling for work father Beale (Steve Coogan). More often, her parents’ new lovers Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham) end up taking care of Maisie.
It could be simply that Maisie knew the truth when her parents each tried to frame the breakup to their own advantage. However, I think Maisie knew something even deeper, something to which I personally related. I feel like I have spent a lot of my life defending plan-making and scheduling. “Why can’t you be more spontaneous, Fred? Just go with the flow, man.” I have enough confidence to stick to my methods. I’ve accomplished quite a lot by planning ahead of time and honoring my obligations, being flexible when needed but always reliable. Still, there’s always some “free spirit” complaining, “Why do you always have to be at the place at the time you agreed to? Let’s do what I want to do RIGHT NOW!”
What Maisie Knew suggests that perhaps going wherever the wind takes you might not create the best environment for a child, nay a person in general. It’s not that Susanna is a rock singer on tour. It would be too easy to dismiss her career itself. It’s that whenever she changes her mind, she thinks she’s come up with the perfect compromise to get her way and keep Maisie happy. Give her toys that’ll make up for the home life she was enjoying before you decided to rip her away. Even Maisie realizes that sometimes just keeping your word is pretty damn good. Thank you, Maisie, for validating me.
The style of the movie is told from Maisie’s perspective, down to framing shots from her level, cutting off the grown-ups. It may seem on the nose, but it actually works really well. Sometimes the obvious choice is the right one. When Susanna and Beale are fighting, we only hear muffled shouts from Maisie’s angle. It creates a Terrence Malicky sense of scene fragments, impressions of incidents rather than overt scenes. However it works to a different effect because there is a definite plot to What Maisie Knew. The impressionistic scenes only add to the tone of a child finding her home, because it doesn’t really matter what they’re fighting about. What matters is they’re not focusing on Maisie, and each of their younger lovers actually are. More interestingly, we overhear vague explanations of the parents’ new relationships, but they’re not explicit enough to explain to a child why there’s new people with their mommy and daddy.
As a portrait of custody battles, What Maisie Knew is a poignant portrayal of the subtle manipulations grown-ups can play that are brutal on children. Hell, they’d be brutal on other adults. People should be more compassionate. Certainly when you forget to pick up your daughter on the day your ex is leaving for his honeymoon, you’re trying to sabotage his happiness, let alone leaving the kid with no one they can count on.
I really liked What Maisie Knew, I got a lot out of it, and I hope you see it so we can talk about it. It’s definitely a film you can talk about. It could make you angry, or open up old wounds, but in the best possible way. Let’s get riled up, let’s take it personally. And don’t leave your kid in a bar with strangers. I mean, come on.