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27 August 2013

The Parents Aren't All Right

And I thought the parenting was bad in The Way Way Back! Well, Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan) in Scott McGehee and David Siegel's new movie What Maisie Knew make Trent, Pam, et al., look like angels. What Maisie Knew is loosely based on Henry James's novel of the same name, but set in present-day New York City instead of Victorian England.

As the film opens, the titular Maisie (Onata Aprile), a wide-eyed, precocious seven-year-old, opens the door of her parents' opulent New York apartment and rushes upstairs to find the money to pay the pizza delivery guy. Susanna, an ageing rockstar, and Beale, an art dealer, are in the late stages of a break-up more acrimonious, perhaps, than even The War of the Roses. The only stability in Maisie's life appears to come from her Scottish nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who genuinely seems to care for her, unlike Maisie's parents, who are more interested in using her as a pawn in their petty point-scoring. [A few spoilers follow, so look away now if you'd prefer to go in without too many details.]

But when the divorce comes through, the judge awards joint custody to both parents, and Maisie is then shuttled between Beale and Susanna every ten days. And when Susanna finds out that Margo is to become Maisie's step-mother as well as her nanny, she gets herself her own younger, blonder plaything in the form of Lincoln (Alexander SkarsgÄrd). Because Susanna and Beale are so wrapped up in their own lives, it falls to Margo and Lincoln to do most of the childcare and the shuttling, leaving them to wonder whether they were taken on as lovers or as hired help.

It's hard to say whether Susanna or Beale is a worse parent. Beale is distracted, detached and unable to relate to his young daughter, but Susanna is furious, sweary and constantly taking her anger and self-pity out on Maisie. She has no shame in telling her daughter exactly what she thinks of her ex-husband and, as her career begins to pick up again, seems to feel little guilt at abandoning Maisie at short notice, attempting to buy back her love with excessive, inappropriate presents. By contrast, Margo's and Lincoln's devotion for their step-daughter is touching. But when Beale's floundering career may mean a return to England, what will happen to Maisie and her families?

What Maisie Knew isn't always an easy film to watch. Moore's performance was scarily good — she sought inspiration for the role from Patti Smith and Courtney Love —and although the other adult leads were also good, their roles were, by their very nature, more understated than the angry rocker chick who forgot that she needed to grow up. Onata Aprile was also fantastic. She was only six when the movie was filmed and she was really impressive. The film is shot through her eyes, which meant she was in almost every scene and the young actress is definitely one to watch out for. The film itself was tightly scripted, packing a lot of punches in its 93-minute length, and keeping the drama moving neatly. I just think I need to go and re-watch Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to re-balance my mood!

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