REVIEW: What Maisie Knew

22 06 2013

Dramatizations of divorce from “Kramer vs. Kramer” to “Mrs. Doubtfire” to “A Separation” have been echoing the same message for years: though the process may be messy and sticky for the parents, the ultimate losers are the children.  “What Maisie Knew,” the latest entry into this canon, tries to offer something similar.  Largely shot from the eye level of its titular tyke, the film conveys successfully just how ugly and catty dissolving a marriage really gets.

Yet at the heart of “What Maisie Knew,” there’s a cruel irony that kept nagging at me as the film dragged on.  The movie scolds parents who forget about the children in the process of sorting out their issues, but “What Maisie Knew” does not practice what it preaches.  Like Julianne Moore’s hopelessly selfish mother Susanna and Steve Coogan’s ill-equipped workaholic father Beale, the filmmakers ultimately lose Maisie’s story and centrality.

By the second half of the film, Maisie is no longer the protagonist; she’s merely a means to an end.  Taking center stage is Alexander Skarsgard’s Lincoln, Susanna’s boyfriend who quickly gets thrust into the role of husband and stepfather, and Joanna Vanderham’s Margo, a former babysitter at the root of the divorce itself.  These two adults are interesting enough, to be sure, but I didn’t want to watch their story.

I came to watch Maisie and see how divorce affects poor, innocent children.  Newcomer Onata Aprile does a wonderful job eliciting sympathy and bringing emotion to her role.  It’s no Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but it’s still impressive.  Wallis was given the ability to carry her film, though, and the risk paid off in spades.  “What Maisie Knew” doubts its lead, and it’s a mediocre film at best because of its shaky confidence and erratic focus.  C+ / 2stars

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