A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that What Maisie Knew is a moving, sometimes disturbing drama that examines the world through the lens of 6-year-old Maisie, a downtown New York City girl whose glamorous parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) are breaking up loudly and painfully in front of her. Some scenes may be difficult to stomach, especially for kids whose parents are going through or have undergone a divorce or separation. Maisie is often shown in heartbreakingly neglectful situations -- at school, with neither parent remembering to pick her up; being shuttled back and forth between apartments; etc. She also sees her parents fight and swear ("f--k," "s--t") at each other, and adults drink and smoke around her/other children.
- Parents say
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What's the story?
Six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the pawn in the middle of her parents' tragic chess game. They're separating and can't agree on anything, including who should have primary custody and what Maisie's day-to-day existence should be like. Not that they're fully aware of how she's faring, anyway. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is a rock star who's trying to stay relevant. She's moody and very angry at Maisie's father, Beale (Steve Coogan), and she isn't shy about expressing her disdain loudly and colorfully, whether Maisie is around or not. Beale, an art dealer with a struggling business, has no respect for Susanna and doesn't attempt to hide this from Maisie. If not for Margo (Joanna Vanderham), Maisie's loving nanny, life would be totally chaotic. But then Beale decides he likes Margo, too, suddenly marrying her -- a "challenge" that Susanna answers by marrying Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgaard), a sweet young bartender she just met. As Susanna and Beale's fighting escalates, Margo and Lincoln find themselves taking up most of the slack, trying to keep Maisie's unstable life as safe and kind as they can.
Is it any good?
Prepare to hold your heart in your hand; if you don't, it will fall into pieces after seeing WHAT MAISIE KNEW. Very few films have so eloquently distilled the ache and misery of being a child caught in the tug-of-war between two angry parents locked in a custody battle, neither of whom is truly capable of protecting their child from the emotional harm they're unwittingly inflicting. There are all sorts of parental misfires on display here: A dad co-opts the one adult who hasn't let his child down (her caregiver), without appreciating the damage that inflicts, and he makes promises he can't keep because he's too focused on his work and on "winning" against his ex-girlfriend in court. A mother can't stop telling her daughter how much she cares (and you can see she really does), but she's too broken to realize that she spends more time arguing with her ex or her lawyer to actually enjoy her daughter and show her that she's truly the center of her world. And that's just the beginning.
Inspired by a Henry Miller novel, What Maisie Knew punches hard, albeit with subtlety. Painful scenes aren't overplayed; instead, they're allowed to unfurl in all their heartbreaking glory, unburdened by loud swells of music or showy acting. (Every single actor delivers a stunning performance, with the wide-eyed, sweet-faced Aprile best of all.) It packs a punch with truth, and although Maisie's situation is very specific -- her parents are of a very affluent, very downtown Manhattan type with a lifestyle that few people live -- her experience is unfortunately universal. We need to know what she knows.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how What Maisie Knew portrays the experiences of children whose parents are in the middle of an acrimonious divorce or separation. Do you think it's realistic?
Talk to your kids about what divorce/separation is -- and the impact it can have on a family.
What makes a family? What makes a good parent? What does this film contribute to that discussion?
- In theaters: May 3, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: August 13, 2013
- Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan
- Directors: David Siegel, Scott McGehee
- Studio: Millennium Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models
- Run time: 98 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: some language
- Last updated: March 13, 2020
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