When Susanna and Beale divorce their daughter Maisie becomes a weapon, a trophy and a tool. The custody battle for Maisie damages and changes Maisie’s daily routine. Things become even more complicated with each parent’s new relationships. As the new partners are drawn into the charming world of Maisie, as well as the poisonous atmospheres that her mother and father create, Maisie must attempt to find a home amongst the chaos and the ever-changing faces that collect her from school. What Maisie Knew deals with the issues of divorce and parental politics in a bleak and unexpected way. Despite Maisie’s adorable nature and vulnerability, there is nothing sweet or sugar-coated here. The script is vicious and grows more and more aggressive as Maisie retreats further and further into herself and her own imagination. Everything we see is through the eyes of Maisie. Every argument is over-heard by Maisie; exposing us to the hurt and anger that Maisie can’t comprehend. Onata Aprile plays Maisie and, at the tender age of six, she gives a moving performance. Everything is natural and believable and this makes Maisie’s position even more upsetting to witness.
The film flourishes due to the performances given by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan. Moore is astonishing in the role of a bohemian mother, riddled with anger and jealousy. She is a blatantly awful mother; convincing herself that she is doing certain things to protect her daughter rather than to please herself and anger her ex-husband. There is love for Maisie but it is not a healthy love. Her lifestyle, behaviour and personality pollute her daughter like second-hand smoke. I felt a constant urge to pull Maisie from these surroundings; to protect her from a haze of hatred that filled her home. Julianne Moore plays the part of Susanna with conviction and understanding; balancing irrational and unforgivable behaviour with the behaviour of the wounded and the vulnerable. Coogan gives an astonishing performance as the instantly more likeable parent. Yet, as the film progresses, the unattractive qualities that are instantly visible in Susanna also become apparent in Beale. There is little to no understanding as to what is good for Maisie; this understanding comes only from each parent’s new partners.
Margo and Lincoln are both filled with a genuine affection for Maisie and have strong protective urges that both her biological parents lack. Although some scenarios that unfolded were bizarre and unrealistic there was a clear depiction of parental trust and love that Maisie finds in her two new individual step parents. Maisie is too young to understand what is happening around her and greets every individual with love and excitement. It is emotional to watch Maisie ignore and forget each time her parents disappoint her and abandon her; something that perhaps an older child would notice. Whether or not you have experienced parents or guardians divorce personally, there are elements of Maisie’s experiences that will remind you of your own childhood struggles and nightmares. One particular sequence brought back the overwhelming anguish of homesickness that I felt many times as a child. The sudden realisation that a parent is nowhere near was a feeling I had long forgotten about and was shocked to suddenly remember so vividly. What Maisie Knew is a painful reminder of our need for a family, in any shape or form, and the importance of a stable and protected childhood. It successfully addresses the imperfections of family and the harrowing effects that divorce can have on children. What Maisie Knew is a brave and detailed film that acts as a reminder of the dangers that come with using children as collateral.
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