Hollywood loves little kids. Cute ones, sad ones, ones in danger, and ones with pinchable cheeks. It is, however, surprisingly bad at making movies that are genuinely about the emotional lives of little kids, other than in movies that are for kids. It is rare to see an excellent movie about a child made for adults.
Welcome, then, is What Maisie Knew, a very loose adaptation of a Henry James novel. Please understand: it is very loose. This is a story of a contemporary New York breakup that takes some of its inspiration from some of the ideas in the novel (which I have read about but not read), but it is fundamentally not that story.
Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a fading but still touring singer, and Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer. They're not married, but they have a very contentious relationship and a little girl named Maisie (Onata Aprile). Maisie's age is not specified, but Aprile is now seven, and I would have guessed Maisie was six, so we'll say six.
Unfortunately for Maisie, Susanna and Beale are the kind of parents who unleash their vicious breakup on their child while insisting that they are doing it all only because they love her so much. Maisie, in response, watches their fights with curiosity and concern, takes whichever hand she's told to take and walks in whatever direction she's told to go, with evident worry but not much understanding, at least at first. And always, as rotten as her parents often are, she has unending love for them, flies into their arms, and extends them every opportunity to be better.
Custody goes one way — no, then the other way — no, the other way again. Both of Maisie's parents remarry: Beale to Maisie's nanny (Joanna Vanderham) and Susanna to a laid-back bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) she doesn't even like all that much. So now, Maisie has four adults to worry about, two of whom have already demonstrated they can't care for her effectively and two of whom are not her parents.
Moore is very good, if not entirely unexpected, as a nasty and self-involved bad mother, and the other three adults do fine work as well — particularly Skarsgard, whose character takes time to come into focus, but does so in satisfying fashion in the end. But this ultimately very fine movie belongs truly and justly to Onata Aprile, who gives the most remarkable performance I've ever seen by a child of this age.
There's no mugging and no sobbing; she is heartbreaking because she is transparently processing the fact that while her parents are willing to fight over her, they will not in fact choose her, over either their other interests or their conflict. She bends toward affection like a sunflower, and the first time Lincoln goes to walk her across the street and she instinctively offers her hand for him to hold, the very fact of her reaching toward an adult expecting to be cared for becomes the film's driving force. Her faith that everyone won't fail her — which she has maintained against all logic, really — becomes the thing that must be saved. And that is a high-stakes conflict indeed.
I suspect that particularly for people who love the book, elements of the way the movie wraps up will seem contrived. And that's a fair criticism. But the performances — especially Aprile's — are so fundamentally honest that it matters much less whether the particular directions taken by the plot seem unlikely. Whether or not there is story plausibility here, there is an emotional integrity to every reaction Maisie has to every development. I was as invested in Maisie as I've been in any character I've seen at this festival, not just as a cute kid, but as a fully formed person. It's a rare and much appreciated thing.