Wednesday, 11 September 2013

What Maisie Knew

Let's talk for a moment about film trailers. Three minute promotional wonders that are rather notorious for making bad films look good, for showing all the best bits and leaving few surprises for the full film. This fact is no secret and unfortunately it has transformed me, and I'm sure many others, into something of a trailer cynic. Whenever I watch a trailer for a film that looks even remotely good I generally have to step back and allow for the fact that there's a good chance it won't be as great as I am being led to believe. As a result of all of this I resigned myself to the fact that What Maisie Knew would not be as good as I wanted it to be, that the trailer was exciting me with two actors of whom I am very fond and a cute little girl. I am happy to tell you that on this fine occasion my cynicism was misplaced, on this occasion the film not only lived up to the trailer, it surpassed it.

What Maisie Knew
Scott McGehee, David Siegel // 2012 // 15 // 99 mins

What Maisie Knew treads a territory that is not unfamiliar to cinema, but one that on many occasions has suffered from poor execution and uneven narratives; divorce. A contemporary New York revision of Henry James' 1897 novel of the same name, the film follows Maisie (Onata Aprile), the only child of art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) and ageing rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore), who becomes trapped in the middle of a bitter separation and custody battle. As her family unravels Maisie's life becomes one of constant adjustment, being passed from parent to parent for indeterminate periods of time, her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) becoming her step-mother and a new father figure entering her life in the form of Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), her mothers retaliative new husband.

Rather than stuff the plot with the in's and out's and legalities of divorce and child custody, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel place Aprile centre stage in order to intimately explore the effects of such a situation on the child who has been unknowingly planted at the centre of everything. This decision to portray the entirety of the films events from the youngsters perspective is inspired as we, the viewer, are subjected to a similar level of unknowing, albeit with a better ability to contextualise the distanced arguments taking place in the next room, while our protagonist goes on colouring or playing by herself. A simple truth about child actors is that their performances, if central to the narrative, can entirely decide the success of a story more often than not and adorable newcomer Aprile not only succeeds in delivering an engaging central performance, she carries the entire film with a charm and ease astounding for one so young. Though clearly aided by her position as the central focus of both the plot and the cameras frame, Aprile displays a consistency and talent that elevates even the most mundane of scenes and sees her construct a refreshingly pure character as she navigates through what at times is a fairly cookie-cutter story.

Supporting this central performance are Maisie's four parental figures who each appear to fulfil some form of parenting stereotype, from Coogan's work-orientated distant father to Joanna Vanderham's gentle step-mother who is struggling to shelter the young girl from the chaos surrounding her. In particular Moore and Skarsgård deliver on top form, Skarsgård's chemistry with the young star being the highlight of the films second and third acts as together they ensure a strong emotional engagement from the viewer and deliver the majority of the film's most heartwarming scenes. Each of the four actors deliver honest performances, with not a weak link amongst them, however they are very much at the mercy of a camera that favours Aprile and a plot that only allows them one-note characters. The 'good' parents are depicted as wonderful, caring and capable of delivering the best upbringing a child could wish for while the 'bad' parents are unreasonable and selfish, and this is the films weakness. Though it stands to reason that good and bad deeds would be more polarised when seen from the perspective of a child the impact of this depiction for an older, more knowing audience may cause frustration over the simplifying of complex issues and the exposure of the rose-tinting that takes place in particular scenes.

What Maisie Knew masterfully handles a sensitive subject, occasionally delving into some dark and brutal areas of child neglect which generate question of what makes a good parent, though at it's core the film is a touching exploration of a broken family and the remarkable optimistic nature of one young girl, in spite of the life she knows breaking down around her. The films often formulaic plot is saved by a stunning central performance and great supporting cast and direction. Onata Aprile truly shines, elevating what could have been a mere domestic melodrama, and marks herself as a remarkably young breakout star.

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