Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel/Writers Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne impressively tell their story through the eyes of a six year old child. We have solid understanding of Maisie (Onata Aprile), Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan) even though we see and hear almost every conversation as if we were Maisie.
Also making the film effective: neither Susanna nor Beale comes across as evil, per se. Beale is funny, at times, and Susanna is occasionally sweet. We grow to hate these characters, of course, but we also see smatterings of redeeming qualities, the same ones to which Maisie attaches.
We understand Maisie and her capacity to cope with disappointment. It is what life has given her, and, as children often can, she has learned to adapt.
We have less understanding of Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgaard) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham). The actors are not to blame – both Skarsgaard and Vanderham are excellent. The problem is that the script never lets us see what attracts Lincoln to Susanna or Margo to Beale. Nor does it let us see how Maisie’s primary caretakers grapple with inevitable heartbreak. Margo is developed more than Lincoln, but even she does not receive enough treatment.
Similarly, we don’t really understand why Margo and Lincoln develop a romantic bond.
I wish the script had given Maisie more opportunity to emote. Even the most resilient kids eventually break under this much pressure.
The performances are very good. Moore and Coogan are excellent, bringing a touch of sympathy to their characters but also exposing their flaws.
Youngster Onata Aprile stands out with a muted performance, wherein emotion and vulnerability are just under the surface, and perseverance always champions.
The score is solid and supports the film’s mood.
The directors use space well. When Maisie hides, the images are claustophobic. When she is hopeful, the scenes have depth. And so on.
The final scene between Moore and Aprile is heartbreaking, mostly because Aprile communicates so much emotion through facial expressions and subtle movements.
Two plot quibbles: why does Maisie stop attending school? Is it summer vacation or are her caretakers more negligent than we believe? How about an explanation thereof? Secondly, at the end of the movie, what are Margo and Lincoln’s work situations?
What Maisie Knew wants to touch on themes of individuality, family, perseverance and adaptability, and it does so, meaning it mostly succeeds, despite flaws in character development.