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With: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Vanderham, Onata Aprile
Written by: Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright, based on the novel by Henry James
Directed by: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Language: English
Running Time: 99
Date: 03/05/2013
IMDB

What Maisie Knew (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Baby Steps

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Directed by that unsung team of David Siegel and Scott McGehee (The Deep End, Bee Season), the new What Maisie Knew seems remarkably relevant, coming as it does from a 116 year-old Henry James novel. And indeed, the directors and their screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright have been able to set the story in present-day New York with little or no fuss.

Starring Onata Aprile as Maisie, who seems to have fathoms of thoughts going on at all times, What Maisie Knew focuses on her as it tells the story of a disintegrating marriage. Every shot is framed through what Maisie sees and hears. It's often clear that she doesn't fully understand what's going on, but -- horrifyingly -- we do.

Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is a New York rock star of a Chrissie Hynde/Patti Smith calibre, and is reckless and self-centered. Her recording and touring duties are often more important than her mothering duties. When Maisie has a sleepover with a friend from school, Susanna thoughtlessly throws a loud drinking/drugs party. The friend gets scared and wants to go home, and Susanna calls her parents "Nazis."

Her father isn't much better. Beale (Steve Coogan) is a pompous English art dealer, who is clearly having an affair with the family's beautiful nanny, Margo (a remarkable Joanna Vanderham, making her big screen debut). When he moves out and Maisie spends a weekend with him, she's not very surprised to see that Margo is also there. Clearly, however, Margo isn't sure how to explain her presence to Maisie.

At the same time, Susanna marries a young, handsome bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard). Lincoln and Margo end up looking after Maisie most of the time, while the others are flitting about the globe. Not surprisingly, they fall in love and begin to fantasize about looking after Maisie together. This, of course, brings up all kinds of moral and legal issues, which the movie leaves open-ended. Maisie, after all, has four "parents" that she loves.

Indeed, no one here is painted purely as a monster. Because of Maisie's innocent, earnest point of view, we can see her love for her father, and how he's really just clueless and helpless. He loves her, but just doesn't understand how to make it work. Same thing with her mother. Margo and Lincoln are more pure-hearted, but far from squeaky clean.

The filmmakers create a slow-paced, wandering tone to go with a six year-old's outlook. Maisie doesn't have to be anywhere at any specific time, so time doesn't mean that much to her. Events just float in and out of her transom. This approach makes the dreary material much easier to digest, though the reality of it is that it is, indeed, dreary material. Regardless, cinema buffs should see this for the great performances all around, the way that New York feels when it's not being rushed, and for an overall tenderness that's most welcome.

What Maisie Knew was the opening night feature at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival.

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