Most people with children have experienced the fear, however brief, that they might be rotten parents. Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s unsettling, exquisitely acted film What Maisie Knew is just the tonic to put it all in perspective. Its two principal adult characters, Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan) are truly rotten parents, unredeemable so. After watching them ignore and neglect their young daughter Maisie (played by the astonishing Onata Aprile) for 99 minutes, I felt as virtuous as Cliff or Clair Huxtable.
These three characters spring from Henry James’ 1897 novella What Maisie Knew but have been modernized into 21st century Manhattanites by screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. Susanna is a rock singer whose star seems to be fading, although she can still rally a crowd of male sycophants to her living room to smoke and drink and discuss her “sound.” Beale, Maisie’s father is a disheveled, professorial sort who deals in art. As the movie begins, he and Susanna — living together, but not married — are already fighting, about money mostly, and how little of it he contributes, although the arguments are just vague background noise. The movie is focused on Maisie’s point of view, functioning as her eyes and ears, and McGeehee and Siegel have turned the parental disputes into something akin to how Charlie Brown et al. hear adults: all jumbled tones, with an emphasis on ire.
After one of these fights, Beale leaves and Susanna changes the locks. They’re done and she’s determined to protect her property, a category poor Maisie definitely falls into. But Beale nonetheless absconds with something valuable, the lovely Scottish nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham). Susanna, who is to Moore’s inconsiderate, self-absorbed character from The Kids Are All Right what Hurricane Sandy was to that last gentle spring rain, figures out he’s done more than swipe the nanny when Maisie details the sleeping arrangements at Daddy’s new apartment. Meanwhile, she hires her own new nanny, Mrs. Wix, another character straight out of James, a fusty old lady played by Paddy Croft. Maisie finds Mrs. Wix much less pleasing than Margo and mentions this to her mother. “Maybe she looks a little funny, but that’s really narrow-minded,” Susanna scolds Maisie. She’s strapping on some expensive looking footgear as she speaks. “I don’t want you to grow up to be one of those kinds of people, because it’s not cool.”
This is the nature of the conversations between both parents and their child; almost entirely and completely inappropriately adult. While Maisie may know just where to find cash to tip the pizza delivery guy with, she’s only six. But they treat her like a pal they can tell anything to and do anything around. In one of the movie’s more painful scenes, Maisie has a friend over for a sleepover: the visiting child can’t sleep in the noisy loft, which looks to be rank with cigarette smoke, and her father arrives late at night to pick her up. Probably up until this point, the girl’s dad thought Susanna was cool and sexy, because God knows she looks the part, but now a slight but discernible look of judgment crosses his face. In this film, the histrionics are almost entirely limited to the bad parents; everyone else seems extraordinarily in check and mature next to them.
Read: TIME’s 2010 Q&A with Julianne Moore
Beale marries Margo—an arrangement that seems almost entirely businesslike—and in response, Susanna marries a man she barely knows, a bartender and groupie named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). Lincoln is nearly as decent and kind a person as Margo (it’s nice to see Skarsgård expand his range). And for a while, as Susanna and Beale are caught up in career stuff, Maisie bounces back and forth between these surrogate parents, an arrangement that starts to seems infinitely preferable.
Susanna and Beale are, as they were in
the novella, deliberately over the top. It’s not that they’re beating Maisie. She lives in enviable apartments and is dressed to the Suri Cruise-nines. Their style of neglect is all about placing themselves first, with the child little more than an accessory. We’re not meant, I don’t think, to take all of this literally and believe these monsters are real, although a scene where Susanna grows bored with Maisie’s company and drops Maisie on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant where Lincoln might or might not be working (he’s not) is so agonizing it makes the heart beat faster. It nearly makes The Turn of the Screw seem like a cozy bedtime story.
What we feel and experience at an exaggerated level is what adult ugliness means to a child, how it manifests as an enormous, disorienting weight. Maisie never knows what is happening, her parents just show up randomly, there’s never any information passed to her. She is utterly adrift and helpless, even though this incredible young actress, who looks like she really could be Moore’s daughter, plays her as heartbreakingly self-sufficient. The sense of the child’s elemental confusion seeps into us and is heightened by the clever casting—we’re all so used to Moore playing good mothers that it’s hard to get our heads around how lousy Susanna is, in much the same way Maisie has to struggle with accepting her deficiencies. The same is true of Coogan, whose innate sense of humor had me convinced (for awhile) that Beale was the better of the two parents. Ha. Some moviegoers may opt for an easier cinematic pleasure than this carefully crafted, discomforting look at familial misery in hyper drive, but it is the most provocative movie about parenting I’ve seen since The Kids Are All Right.