There may not be many movies with happy endings more heartless than the one in “What Maisie Knew.”
The new adaptation of Henry James’s novel about divorce as seen through the eyes of a small child does some things really well. All of the acting is great, especially Onata Aprile as six-year-old Maisie and Steve Coogan as her art-dealer father. Cell phones are used terrifically to create a sense of parental distraction, chaos, and irreconcilable conflicting demands.
We sense that Maisie’s understanding of her situation is fragmentary and almost fantastical. She is compliant, and protective of the adults in her life, but repeated disappointments also make her scared and hesitant. She’s mercurial in a very real little-kid way; at times nothing seems to stick to her, but sometimes she’s clearly overhearing and remembering things her parents don’t expect her to catch. By forgetting some things (“Don’t you remember when Daddy threw you across the room?”) and holding on to others, she creates a narrative of her parents’ marriage and its breakup which is strikingly different from the one the parents themselves have, the ones they retail in the offices of schoolteachers and lawyers, and the one the audience itself creates. Maisie wears a big owl backpack with giant eyes, and later she’s dressed in a pink shirt with a glasses-wearing, also giant-eyed bunny rabbit, so it seems like the movie wants to tell a story about conflicting perceptions and hidden, obscure and partial truths.
So why is it so simplistic?
Massive spoilers here: Maisie’s parents break up, find new marital partners, and then those new marriages also break up and the stepparents themselves get together. Because the movie severely compresses the novel’s time frame–thus forestalling the development of Maisie’s own awareness, by the way–all of this happens in the space of less than a year, which seems extreme even for Andrew Cherlin’s America.
There are a few home truths expressed in this narrative–unless you change, you will make the same mistakes in your new relationship that you made in your old one; four parents often provide less supervision than two; scheduling conflicts reflect deeper conflicts over the role the parents and stepparents and possible future stepparents play in the child’s life.
And I’m tentatively okay with a movie positing that People Never Really Change, even though I think that’s false, cruel, and damaging–it might still lead to a good tragic movie. But that is the premise of this movie. Maisie’s mom and dad are basically awful and they never even really make an effort to change. (I don’t think her mother has a single non-dysfunctional interaction with another adult in the entire course of the movie.) Her stepparents, by contrast, are basically good, and when they mess up it’s only a few hours before they’re apologizing and reforming their ways. The plot of the movie boils down to: Innocent child is transferred from evil parents to good parents.
This creepy fantasy is reinforced by the fact that all of the problems which consume the adults in the first nine-tenths of the film simply disappear in the final tenth. Money, job pressures, and custody battles have been huge tidal forces in the film… until New Mommy and New Daddy whisk Maisie off to the seaside and install her in a friend’s cabin. New Mommy is a nanny and New Daddy is a bartender. Are they somehow fighting a two-front custody battle somewhere offscreen, or planning to fight it? Did Old Mommy and Old Daddy just give up? Maybe the audience is supposed to infer that this is just a weekend idyll which will vanish very soon, when real-world pressures once again intrude–but I have no idea how the idyll even happened in the first place.
I saw the movie with a friend who commented that “Maisie” makes it seem like you simply can’t be a responsible parent if you also hold down a job. And I don’t think these problems occur because we’re too deeply embedded in Maisie’s worldview; throughout the movie we’ve been given enough to judge situations on our own, with an adult’s knowledge and perspective, and there’s no indication that we’ve slipped into a deeper level of subjectivity for the ending.
Even if this is a brief idyll, it’s one based on an unforgiving falsehood: the lie of good and bad people. Even if People Don’t Change (also false, but potentially more interesting), their unchanging selves aren’t all sheep or all goat, all the time.
It’s hard to avoid unflattering comparisons with last year’s masterful Iranian child’s-eye-view-of-divorce movie, “A Separation.” In that movie people do change, and they’re frequently trying to become better; they’re complex, and even when they try their hardest to do the right thing they often deepen their tragedy. None of them are simply good people or bad people, even when they’re behaving well or poorly.
In the first hour of the movie I found myself loving the acting, compelled by the story, and mildly disgusted by the saccharine, twinkly-indie-chick music. I’m sorry to say that by the end the music has taken over.