Sept. 25 2013 12:00 AM

'What Maisie Knew' views divorce through the eyes of a child


Screw war; divorce is hell — and is something far more likely the average American will have to endure. It is second only to the death of a spouse and just above imprisonment as the most stressful thing an adult can endure. For a child, it can often be the end of the world. Naturally, some divorces are more congenial than others, but those ones don’t make for gripping films that cut like broken glass. For those who dare, “What Maisie Knew” is an unflinching look at the horrors of divorce and serves as a chronicle of sorts for a future lost soul.

“What Maisie Knew” is based on the Henry James novel of the same name. Although the source material is set in late 19th century England, much of the plot and characterizations didn’t need to be changed for the contemporization to present-day Manhattan; selfish, immature people will always be selfish, immature people.

Julianne Moore plays Susannah, a Courtney Love-like grunge queen who has no idea how to be a responsible partner or mother. Her ex-husband Beale (Steve Coogan) is some sort of international investor (whatever that is) whose career keeps him in perpetual state of travel. They become locked in a bitter custody battle for their daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), but it’s never clear why. It seems each just wants control of Maisie so the other one loses. And so poor Maisie gets caught in the middle of their pettiness, becoming a delicate New York bird trapped in a toy-lined caged.

The centerpiece of the film is Aprile, whose wide-eyed naivety as Maisie is ach ingly sincere. Maisie may not be able to intellectually process the arguments going on in the other room and schedule upheavals that involve having to move from one house to another in the middle of the night, but she’s in emotional lockstep with her warring parents. She realizes she’s part of something she can’t control, and deals with it by being silent and easygoing. She is what an analyst might describe as a “lost child.”

Maisie is flanked by her new stepparents, Margo (the luminous Joanna Vanderham) and Lincoln (“True Blood”’s Alexander Skarsgård). It takes both of them a minute to figure out they’ve been roped into a sham marriage as a bargaining chip, but fortunately for Maisie, they at least have the wherewithal to keep her out of it. Margo and Lincoln become the closest thing she has to real parents, and they become her refuge. It also becomes the heart of the movie.

Specifically, the development of the Maisie-Lincoln relationship is expertly crafted and magical to watch. What starts out as two strangers thrown together and forced to do their best slowly morphs into a raw, honest depiction of two wounded hearts growing into each other for support. Lincoln’s youthful zeal, Maisie’s gradual trust of him and their playful camaraderie feel natural and decidedly non-actorly.

The script captures some painfully honest moments seemingly ripped from the lives of children of celebrities. The friend who sleeps over and gets freaked out after seeing grownups doing drugs in the living room. The well-intentioned strangers who try to cheer you up but unintentionally talk to you like you’re an idiot. The logical disconnect of seeing a 6-year-old sitting at a bar all by herself, picking cherries out of her Shirley Temple. They’d be brilliant if they weren’t so unsettling.

Although the “50 percent of marriages end in divorce” claim is loaded (and more than a little misleading), the fact remains that many people view marriages as disposable. This film should be required viewing for anyone thinking of getting married, especially if their parents were divorced. For everyone else, beware of the potential for PTSD.

“What Maisie Knew” plays through Tuesday exclusively at Studio C! in Okemos.