When Henry James published What Maisie Knew in 1897, the idea of an innocent child being shuttled back and forth between spoiled divorced parents was a novel one. Today it’s all too common. Maybe that’s why Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s depressing dysfunctional-family drama feels so pointless and inert.
Six-year-old Maisie’s folks (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) can’t stop yelling at each other long enough to see how toxic their anger is to their daughter, who’s often shown playing with stuffed animals and retreating into her imagination while WWIII is breaking out in the next room. She might as well be invisible, but she hears everything. And here’s the only good news: Onata Aprile, the young actress who plays the adorable moppet trapped in this bitter custody tug-of-war, is heartbreakingly good. All you have to do is take one look into her wide, sad eyes to know she’s internalizing all the vicious white noise. You also suspect that she’s going to spend most of her teenage years in marathon therapy sessions.
Sadly, things don’t get much better when her parents split up. Moore is gratingly one-note as an angry, aging rock star itching to hand her daughter off to her latest lover (Alexander Skarsgård). And Coogan, as a distant and smug art dealer, is a broken record of neglectful excuses, constantly passing Maisie like a soiled diaper to the nanny (Joanna Vanderham), who moonlights as his mistress. Both of these actors have been great before and will be great again. But in this bleak indie bummer that confuses hopelessness with depth, they’re really nothing more than selfish, one-dimensional monsters. Maisie’s better off without them. C