Bad parenting is at the heart of What Maisie Knew, the challenging but rewarding new film from Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Updating the Henry James novel to a bright, shiny modern day New York, the filmmaking team inspire loathsome performances from Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, each of whom are bent on one-upping each other in the selfishness department.
As former lovers Susanna and Beale, the two go to great lengths for the sake of a trump, treating their titular grade school daughter (Onata Aprile) as a trophy that they just as soon neglect in favor of personal pursuits. While these tragic actions lead to a wealth of depressing moments, it’s Moore and Coogan’s well-rounded ability to elicit scorn that makes the film’s eventual positive turn all the more powerful.
In what is ultimately an unorthodox love story with young Maisie as the connecting fiber, the film slowly and organically turns a corner thanks to two characters caught in the middle of the custody snafu. Unwittingly marrying the warring exes to make them appear more suitable before the courts, bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) and Maisie’s Scottish nanny-turned-stepmom Margo (Joanna Vanderham) learn of their pawn statuses the hard way.
Regularly forced into clean-up roles after Susanna and Beale dump Maisie in awful circumstances, the two form their own bond, one enriched by a genuine affection for their step-daughter. Heartfelt and charming, their relationship acts as a much-needed balm for the grueling neglect inflicted upon the little girl by her biological parents. It also helps counteract the surplus of sad staring by the pint-sized protagonist, though considering the trials she endures, the turn of events is all the more sweet.
Rated R for some language.
What Maisie Knew is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave.