Screening in Europe for the first time at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew (2012) is a twee tale of divorce told through the eyes of a seven-year-old child. Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the precocious yet lovable daughter of faded rocker Susanna (Julianne Moore) and English-born art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan, in a paternal role that certainly couldn’t be described as ‘Alpha Papa’). Caught in the middle of a bitter custody battle, Maisie relies upon her parent’s new spouses, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham), for the love she requires.
Torn from pillar to post, Maisie initially appears unfazed by the whole ordeal. However, as her parent’s neglect – fuelled by their contempt for each other – begins to escalate, someone has to step in for the sake of the child. Based on Henry James’ lyrical novel of the same name, McGehee and Siegel have created an implausible and unfortunately hackneyed portrait of parental neglect in the privileged milieu of upper Manhattan. Whilst the egotistical use of Maisie by her parents is irrefutably unforgivable, their actions are so unbelievable and devoid of emotion as to lack any resonance.
Despite its occasional charms, What Maisie Knew is a poorly sketched portrait of middle-aged first world problems, sadly devoid of any unfeigned emotion or wider cultural significance. Maisie of course serves as a window into this slightly repugnant world of narcissistic values, but through her adorable presence (Aprile’s performance here is the very pinnacle of ‘cute child’ couture) we almost fail to notice that beyond the on-screen emotional manipulation, the filmmakers are also cynically utilising this character to make us invest in what is a fairly vapid, predictable family drama. Beyond Maisie’s endearing mannerisms, we actually learn precious little about our kiddie protagonist, who functions solely as a naïve onlooker onto this incredulous world.
Had we merely observed what Maisie sees – instead of the countless pathetic arguments shared between parents Susanna and Beale – then McGehee and Siegel’s film could perhaps be forgiven for having such a juvenile viewpoint of adult complexities. Sadly, we don’t, and what we’re left with is a fluffy familial soap opera that pulls on your heartstrings with all the subtly of a ribbon-wrapped box of puppies.
An overblown, often calculated and stupendously contrived indie melodrama, What Maisie Knew successfully manages to blind its audience to its substantial failings (and total insignificance) through the saccharine, sweet smile of its enchanting child protagonist. However, take a moment to consider its fabricated reality and you may well uncover a web of cinematic smoke and mirrors beneath this seemingly innocent children’s party.
The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 19-30 June, 2013. For more of our EIFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.