Movie Review: What Maisie Knew (2012, Dir. Scott McGehee & David Siegel)

What Maisie Knew

If you like beautiful cinematography, similar to Battlefield Earth, you should see What Maisie Knew. Though the film does not take place amongst an alien invasion, the alienation of the characters from each other as well as the audience will leave you feeling like you’re in deep space.

The film, starring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, is mostly shot from the child-like perspective of Maisie, played by Onata April. We view the world as Maisie does, simplistically and seemingly in its entirety. Discrete shots of a messy, upperclass divorce in Manhattan are combined with a glimpse at the innocence of Eden, complete with all the animals. I make this remark due to the beautiful imagery surrounding Maisie’s world, with tight shots of ornate and delicate toys, animal dolls/figurines.

This imagery harkens to the larger plot of the film, where highly capable adults treat the people around them as objects. Alexander Skarsgård, as Moore’s new husband, and Joanna Vanderham, as Coogan’s new wife, take on the brunt of this abuse. These two step-parents/children are constantly castigated for their youth by their spouses, and no irony is spared in these semi-abusive relationships, especially in light of the erratic behavior on the part of Coogan and Moore as parents.

The custody battle for Maisie drags on, setting up the kind of kitschy plot made memorable by most framas (family-dramas). Maisie’s shallow parents, in both personality and development, come to constant blows over their visitation time with Maisie, only to eventually give up and abandon their daughter altogether. Skarsgård and Vanderham are thus left to juggle the life of a 6 (is she six? they never say) year old girl that they did not participate in creating. Frama ensues. More marriages fall apart, and Maisie is left to fend for herself, until, twist, she isn’t. After recurring instances of parental ineptitude, you’ll be hard pressed to figure out which couple survives What Maisie Knew.

Despite hardship from every angle, Maisie’s world is full of wonder for the entirety of the film, and April’s performance conveys just that. At times, though, the film leaves the audience full of wonder as well, at how such great performances from the entire cast could create such a two-dimensional story.

The at times mythical and enchanting cinematography (Niles Nuttgens) gives the film a bright-eyed flare that when matched with the original score (Nick Urata) almost scratches the surface of what Maisie knew. Unfortunately, the rich song and imagery of a child’s world does not make up for the film’s explication issues, and unknowingly leaves the audience in the dark.

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