What Maisie Knew is one of the most perceptive, honest, and devastating films that I’ve ever seen to involve a young child as its lead protagonist. Onata Aprile’s performance is unexpectedly extraordinary, projecting a sense of maturity well beyond her years (she was six years old at the time of filming), and is nothing less than entirely compelling as a young girl caught in the middle of a bitter and selfish custody battle between her two absolutely thoughtless and oblivious parents, played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, who are both chillingly excellent.
Expertly directed by the supremely talented combo of Scott McGehee and David Siegel and sensitively yet caustically adapted by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne from the classic Henry James novel, this film had an absurdly low profile release despite enormously positive critical reaction back in 2012, but because it’s actually about something important and believable and absolutely true to life, most people couldn’t be bothered to check it out. In all fairness, its release was low-profile, but for those who value cinema such as this, it’s worth tracking down.
I can think of so few movies where the performance of a child in a leading role was this exquisite (the brilliant Italian film I’m Not Scared also features some remarkable performances by youngsters), and it’s because of Aprile’s phenomenally observant quality as an actress that the viewer is thrust into her awkward and sad headspace, resulting in a film that pulls zero punches and affords no easy answers or tidy conclusions. Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham both offer fantastic supporting turns, amplifying the high-stakes game of emotional fireworks that the narrative becomes, while creating layered characters which helps to solidify the interpersonal dynamics of the story, which is entirely focused on words and feelings and moments of intense anger and strife.
This is a tremendously underrated film, that rare picture made exclusively for adults but expressly told through a child’s POV, and easily in the top five productions ever to be funded by modern schlock/actioner distributors Millennium Entertainment, now going by the name of Alchemy. But regardless of where the money came from to produce What Maisie Knew, this is the sort of effort that deserves more cinematic visibility, and will prove to be unforgettable to those who get a chance to see it.
Review by Nick Clement