Monday, May 20, 2013

What Maisie Knew

Sensitive, knowing and true, Scott McGehee's and David Siegel's "What Maisie Knew" takes familiar material involving divorce and child custody to new heights with its intelligence and emotional honesty. As the film opens, touring rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and contemporary art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) conduct a screaming argument about who's the bigger asshole, which both win. Their six-year-old daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) hears them tear each other apart, though her nanny Margo (pretty newcomer Joanna Vanderham) tries to keep her focused on homework.

There will be hearings, and court-appointed counselors, and joint custody, and a lot of the sort of domestic situations we've seen before. Here, though, they feel real, not items on a checklist but genuinely sad happenings in the life of a young girl forced to develop coping mechanisms and find love where she can. That turns out to be with Margo, who has moved in with Beale, and with Lincoln (sexy Alexander Skarsgård), the drummer-cum-bartender Susanna marries because she thinks it'll look good for the judge. As Margo and Lincoln begin to drift apart from Beale and Susanna, we find ourselves rooting for them to get together as intensely as in any great romance, not because McGehee and Siegel manipulate us into it (well, maybe a little), but because we feel the power of their love for Maisie and the connection it forges between them.

And yet these filmmakers are too smart to turn Susanna and Beale into outright ogres. They're real people, with strengths and flaws and ugly sides and good intentions. Moore's as dependable as a mule and finds all the subtleties of Susanna, while Coogan reveals unknown depths of talent in humanizing Beale. Aprile admirably eschews precocity as Maisie, letting us see in her eyes just how much she knows, those solid things she clings to in a life of constant flux. Yet this is not the usual case of liking a movie because of a cute kid; it's the sharp, never overwritten script with its ring-of-truth dialogue that makes "What Maisie Knew" catch you off-guard.

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