Film Review: What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew

By: Erica Bean

The first time I encountered two parents fighting, I was fifteen years old, and they were not my parents. They were the parents of my first boyfriend, and it was a shock to the system to hear such ugly words being hurled across a kitchen island. I might have been one of the lucky ones whose parents were still happily married, but their happiness did nothing to prepare me for the real world of arguing adults. Their love did not prepare me for the ways that people who are married sometimes do not always love or like each other. As an adult I can now understand why my boyfriend did not seem disconcerted in any way, but as a teen, I could only stare in surprise at him as he took me by the hand and walked with me in the backyard to sit by the pool. The heat from the summer sun did not make me deaf to the arguing I could hear through the windowpane behind us. We sat at the edge of the pool and made circles in the water with our feet. I pretended not to hear, but inside myself the words that did not belong to me smashed into a million pieces, shattering everything I ever knew about the way people spoke to each other. I wondered how my boyfriend survived, how he coped all these years. I remember asking, has it always been this way? He answered casually, practiced- I don't know anything different, and it was a distinct time in our relationship where I felt the gap of what he knew and what I thought I knew about life. From the pool where we sat, I could hear the tone, the inflections, the harshness. The lovely, gracious people I had known for so many years had turned into people I no longer recognized. We rested our backs on the hot cement, our knees hanging over the edge of the pool, our feet still making arcs and ripples in the water.

This is what I think of when I am watching Maisie come across her parents yelling at each other. I think of the ripples, and the affects of that loudness, the piercing harshness. I see her recognize the arguing, the angry look on her mothers face when she is calling her father an asshole, and I see her take herself away, shifting her body to a place away from the noise, with a look on her face that the fighting is not only normal, but she no longer hears it. Maisie is humming, she is playing tic-tac-toe, or laughing with her nanny, or she is letting herself win at her own game drawn on a pizza box with a blue crayon.

What Maisie Knew has two directors, David Siegal and Scott McGehee and the cast is exceptional- Julianne Moore as the mother, Alexander Skarsgård as her new husband, and Steve Coogan as Maisie's father. There are others too, important people who take care of Maisie when her parents become absent, but it is Onata Aprile as Maisie that we can't look away from. She is a soft voice in a loud room, a smiling child despite a temperamental mother, a tiny and perceptive human who is wholly focused through the camera as she carries the film with her own two hands, every moment a graceful offering of what it means to forgive those who let us down.

Maisie's parents do all the things parents shouldn't do when they are divorcing- they force her to take sides, they ask her about the others life, their secrets that she knows but doesn't know the importance of what she knows, only that it's happening to her. Maisie is keeping herself occupied while her parents remain preoccupied with their own lives, spending more time fighting about their daughter than actually spending time with her. She is watching the secrets form, the way they weave in and out of her life. She is left to wait late, after school, forgotten to be picked up by her mother, her father; she is patient, bored. She is an obedient child. She doesn't understand. Her father remarries, her mother remarries. The nanny becomes her new step-mother, a bartender her step-father. She is learning what it means when people leave and are left. The hardest part of watching the film is watching Maisie navigate her way through her new, dismantled world in quiet solitude, and yet, she is the brightest spot of every scene- she is the shining light, she is laughter and joy and colorful on a summer day. She is distracted in a park, kneeling at the edge of a pond on a warm afternoon. She is too young to be resentful yet, of her family and the way they wander in and out of her days. She is the reason the pieces of her fractured family keep smashing into each other like stained glass, bright and sharp and shattered. She forgives them for breaking. She loves them despite it.

Despite her mothers priority of her music career, or her fathers work calls. Despite sitting alone scene after scene, waiting on a bench to be picked up, the immaculate marbled floor below her feet that do not reach the floor.

As an adult I know that life is not always conclusive, that evidence of failures usually speak to the heavy burdens we carry on our own, and our own mired way of trying to let them go. Sometimes the questions are hard and the answers are easy. People are complex and it's not as simple as mothers or fathers not wanting their children, even if they have the utmost obligation of their heart to do so. We see Maisie being held and kissed by her mother and told that she is loved, while also being left, or forgotten, or playing in her room, watching her mother cry. Everything we know is everything Maisie knows, but only because Maisie knows it. In the unfolding of her days Maisie still finds joy despite the shuffling from parent to parent, from place to place. Even while she listens one morning to her father tell her he is moving to England, her small mouth chewing her breakfast, the light from the window showing the dark corners of her life becoming something other than what it used to be. And yet there is that unwavering grace, her resilience smoothing out the edges of her new life without the things she used to know. Her nanny, her former step-mother for such a brief time, takes Maisie to a beach house, and this is where she shines the most. Here, she can be a child. She runs with into the sea, the cold water rushing over her bare feet. Her small hands building something, even if it is only with crumbling, dry grains of sand. She sits on the shore and holds a shell up to her ear, listening to the ocean. She is listening to a world that is finally listening to her back.

Her mother comes for her one evening. Let's go Maisie, she says. Maisie doesn't move. Maisie, come on, she repeats, impatient, her tour bus parked and waiting. But Maisie wants to stay, she wants to go on the boat the next day like she was promised. She does not want to leave behind another sense of hope in exchange for disappointment. In her one true act of awareness outside of herself, her mother understands this with sharp clarity.

Do you know who your mother is, her voice breaks to ask, kneeling in front of daughter, scared that she has been replaced by the very people she's had to rely on to take care of Maisie. But her daughter, her beautiful and delicate daughter does not let her mother fall through the cracks.

You, Maisie replies softly, placing her hand on her mothers shoulder, in reassurance. In comfort.

On that summer day of being fifteen, I can see how like Maisie I was. I was the child in a room full of knowing adults; I knew nothing more than what I'd been told, or what belonged to me as my own limited experiences. The things I thought I knew were changing, but on that day, this is what I knew for sure: I knew that there was arguing inside a beautiful house and that it was summer and I was young and that I knew so little about people, how they could lash out in hurt, how they coped with all the twisted things inside themselves. All I knew was that I needed to keep moving, to keep breaking the surface of the water at my feet. I knew that I had a lifetime ahead of me to figure it out.

Originally published on Bright Wall/Dark Room