We hear a lot about “helicopter parents,” hovering over their children, micromanaging extracurriculars and providing a protective dome from the hardships of real life.
There is, however, another kind of parent. Self-absorbed. Bitter. Angry. And oblivious to the point of neglect.
That’s “What Maisie Knew,” a modern-day reworking of the Henry James novel of the same name. James’ late-19th century version had divorced parents using their child as an excuse to prolong their battles; directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel show that not much has changed in 21st century Manhattan.
Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan) are beyond dysfunctional, one of those couples that only communicates through criticism and cruelty, painting the very air with their anger. Six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) watches with wide-eyed silence, peeking around corners, staying out of the way and taking in much more than her parents realize as their relationship dissolves. Maisie embraces the love she gets and works around the rest.
Moore is fearless as the middle-aged rock musician who wants to love her child but has no idea what a mother is supposed to do. Petty and profane, jealous and vindictive, she wields Maisie like a weapon against the men in her life.
And in her most wrenching moments, she knows she’s awful. You want to slap her and cry for her at the same time.
As Maisie’s British art dealer dad, Coogan plays it more aloof – floating above the mess he’s creating, making promises (between phone calls) he won’t remember long enough to keep.
When, after the breakup, he marries Margo, Maisie’s much-younger nanny, the story doesn’t scream “homewrecker” as you might expect. The reliable Margo (Joanna Vanderham) loves Maisie and is the one person who listens to her.
Susanna retaliates with a quickie marriage of her own, to hunky bartender Lincoln (“True Blood’s” Alexander Skarsgård), who also steps up in the stepparent role, surprising himself and everyone else.
Through it all, Maisie learns more than her share of lessons about how what adults say measures up against what they do. People forget to pick her up at school and forget to drop her off; she gets pushed out of cabs and handed off to the doorman; she spends a night at the end of Lincoln’s bar and in a stranger’s house.
Because this story is seen through Maisie’s eyes, Onata Aprile is in almost every scene, and she is excellent. Maisie doesn’t scream or cry, she doesn’t chastise her many parents or accuse them. There is nothing precocious about her, and the neglect she suffers does not make her wise beyond her years. She is nothing more or less than a little girl who wants the parents she loves to love her back and to behave like they are, indeed, grown-ups.
The fact that some people find that so terribly hard to do is not as shocking as it is sad.
Onata’s sweet presence keeps “What Maisie Knew” from wallowing in despair. The writers and directors are kind enough to leave her with a measure of hope, while sending the audience members away with a lesson of their own about never underestimating the influence they have on the children in their lives. For better or for worse.
What Maisie Knew
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Onata Aprile, Steve Coogan
Directors: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Running time: 93 minutes
Rating: R for profanity.
The Lowdown: A sweet and smart 6-year-old is witness to her self-absorbed parents’ messy breakup and learns that what people do means more than what they say.