'What Maisie Knew' and What Adults Don't Know

by Cynthia Fuchs

7 May 2013

Again and again, Maisie is left waiting to be picked up, alone in a foyer or on a bench, watching a guardian at work, helping the doorman at a parent's building to sort mail.

You Want to See Your Room?

cover art

What Maisie Knew

Director: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Cast: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Joanna Vanderham

(Millennium Entertainment)
US theatrical: 23 Aug 2013 (General release)

It’s hard to know what children know. It’s hard because they don’t always know how to say what they know, because they don’t know themselves, and also because adults don’t tend to remember what it’s like to be kids or to hear what kids tell them. One reason that ATT’s “It’s Not Complicated” campaign is so appealing is Beck Bennett appears really to listen to kids who explain to him how faster is better than slower or more is better than less.

Most movies—in particular those ostensibly made to appeal to young viewers—don’t go in for this dynamic. Instead, they offer up children who perform according to scripts and instructions by adults, which are, by definition, not what kids know, but what adults imagine or project or think they recall. What Maisie Knew shows this process, the one by which adults miss what’s in front of them, or make children—in this case, one child, Maisie, played by Onata Aprile—into what they need in order for their worlds to make sense. Unlike the ATT spots, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s film—based on the Henry James’ 1897 novel—doesn’t provide much in the way of Maisie’s own articulation. Rather, it offers images of her face and posture, her reactions to adults, intimating what she knows, encouraging you to wonder and so, perhaps, to remember.

What Maisie Knew approximates its young protagonist’s experience mostly by observing her. A “quiet” girl (as so many of us have been termed), Maisie is herself relentlessly observant, surrounded by adults who act out in ways that are made all the more confusing and upsetting as you imagine the little girl’s view. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is a rock singer, with a tour and a crew and a crowd of friends who smoke and drink and party. Susanna is estranged from Maisie’s father, the international art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan), as soon as you first see them—or rather, as they’re offscreen, arguing over each other’s immaturities, angry at broken promises, worried about their futures. That they attend so scarcely to Maisie, except when she is directly in front of them, is to the point here.

As you hear their raised voices, you also see Maisie’s concern, unvoiced. Her nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), does her best to distract her charge, bringing her onto a terrace to play tic-tac-toe and eat pizza, their heads bent over the table as Beale pops up in the background to remark Margo’s “hauntingly calm exterior” and then to announce his departure. The brief exchange establishes a pattern for the film, as the camera takes note of the adults, sometimes tilting up to suggest Maise’s perspective, but keeps your attention on her face, the level low, the frame steady.

As Maisie heads to school, hand up to answer her teacher’s question, surrounded by people her size, or walks along the lake in Central Park with Margo, absorbing the sunny day and the glorious sight of model ships on the water, you’re aware that trouble persists sat home, because you’re putting together a series of scenes. This even as you can’t know how she understands the stress of living with Susanna, who locks a noisy Beale out of their home, or waiting at school with Beale, who comes to pick her up unannounced, before the day’s end, until Susanna shows up, expressing her outrage with the sort of language that alarms her principal.

Her parents’ official split occurs mainly offscreen, such that Maisie is left to deal with the agreement that neither her mother nor father wants. In an effort to demonstrate her maternal effort, Susanna has Maisie bring home a classmate, little Zoe (Sadie Rae), who is at first impressed that she has a TV in her bedroom, delighted by a dinner topped off by cake and whipped cream, and then frightened by the party Susanna has with her rocker friends, all high, all strange to a seven-year-old’s mind. When Maisie hears Zoe crying while they lie together under a tent in her bedroom, all she can think to do is report it to Susanna, who duly calls Zoe’s dad, who comes to rescue her. You can’t know how Maisie processes this series of events, but witnessing Zoe’s upset is perhaps a rupture, or at least an indication that what she’s known as normal is not so for someone else.

The night is recalled during the legal proceedings that you don’t exactly see, leading to Beale being awarded custody, along with Margo, whom he marries (“Your daddy’s sad when you’re not here,” she tries to explain to Maisie, “It’s nice for him to have someone here to cheer him up, to do the shopping”). This allows him to continue to travel for work (and whatever else) while leaving Maisie home with Margo. Even as Maisie tries to gauge the Margo’s increasing worry, she faces another abrupt adjustment: Susanna marries a bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). Like Maisie, you never know how this happens; all you see is that Lincoln, like Margo, appears genuinely interested in the child, to the point that when he begins to color with her one night during Susanna’s recording session, the mother turns jealous, again indicating the roiling inabilities of adults to manage their feelings, or more to the point, to behave like adults.

Again and again, Maisie is left waiting to be picked up, alone in a foyer or on a bench, watching Lincoln at work in the bar, helping the doorman at a parent’s building to sort mail. Again and again, the frame hovers near but not too near her face, eyes wide, expression open, a look of hope, perhaps disappointment, maybe a mighty effort to decipher the chaos before her. Repeatedly, her mother or her father, or Lincoln or Margo, guess at what she’s thinking, try to accommodate or smooth over or overlook. And in their efforts, as much as you might understand them or assess them, you also see your own reflected. Gazing on Maisie, you want to know what she knows. That you can’t is at once your dilemma and your opportunity, what adults must engage in order to be adults.

What Maisie Knew


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