What Maisie Knew ***1/2 (out of five)
Steve Coogan probably won’t sweep too many awards for his performance in What Maisie Knew, but there is a quiet scene between his character Beale and daughter Maisie (the extremely strangely named Onata Aprile) that is the best piece of screen acting I’ve seen this year. He never quite loses his Coogan-ness, but there is no more doubting he’s a sterling dramatic actor.
Beale breaks up with Maisie’s mother Susanna (Julianne Moore, doing end-of-her-rope frustration like only she can) at the beginning of the film, and the events of the next eighteen months at so are seen expressly from Maisie’s point of view: what she doesn’t see or hear, we don’t see or hear. It’s a clever conceit and requires consistency, and the movie holds true to it, delivering an intriguing method of storytelling. Particularly I was struck by the clever sound design: often, characters retreat down hallways away from Maisie to avoid her hearing what they’re saying on the phone, and as they do, and Maisie turns away, their voices recede: you realize that, even as adults try and protect their children, children are also very good at protecting themselves.
A movie like this lives or dies on the strength of the child at its centre, and Aprile, who is, by default, in every scene, is excellent, completely natural and vibrant. Like Coogan, she will probably miss out on awards attention; Maisie, unlike Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) in Beasts of the Southern Wild, is quite passive, reacting to the events around her with often silent stoicism. If anything, Maisie as a character is a little too indefatigable; once in a while, you’d love her to throw a huge screaming tantrum and let her wretched parents know just what children they’re being.