What Maisie Knew
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Starring Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Steve Coogan, Onata Aprile
Playing at the Angelika
A modern-day adaptation of a Henry James novel that’s scripted and shot almost entirely from the perspective of a young girl, “What Maisie Knew” is an unlikely success story.
The movie works, powerfully so, thanks to its insight into the experience of being a child of divorce. Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel effectively streamline a blur of chaotic experiences, reflecting the innocence of youth without condescension.
But the film especially hits home thanks to a stunning performance by 7-year-old Onata Aprile as six-year-old protagonist Maisie. Aprile has already mastered the steepest challenge in screen acting: reacting to things in an engaging, cinematic way.
Mom Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a self-absorbed rocker; dad Beale (Steve Coogan) loves no one more than himself. Both parents mean well but simply can’t get out of their own way. So when a split happens and a custody battle ensues, Maisie is caught in the middle, struggling to absorb the great and sudden changes in her life.
Maisie is surrounded by adults — her emotional parents and their new significant others, the kindhearted Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) and her former babysitter Margo (Joanna Vanderham) — but she’s more of a grown-up than the whole lot, never having screaming fits or otherwise acting her age. Instead, she processes, silently observing as she’s tossed around from one guardian to the next, as mom bad-mouths dad and vice versa.
Aprile avoids the usual child-actor affectations and commands the screen; there's no hint of a spoiled attention-seeker in this performer. She carries Maisie through this gauntlet with stern pride and a strong interior life, playing a young girl so full of love to give that she can forgive some egregious wrongs.
The character is inspirational and so is the actress playing her.