It’s a considerable roll of the dice, hingeing your entire movie on a child actor. Provided you’ve got all the requisite pieces in place, you’re one crucial casting call away from either Paper Moon or The Phantom Menace. Pre-teen actors are an unproven commodity, for the most part. They’re unpredictable. And – at least in terms of sheer profitability – they’re a major crap shoot
at the box office.
All of which might explain why What Maisie Knew arrives as such a welcome breath of fresh air. For here we find a dark-yet-heartwarming tale in which the child actor not only holds her own, but actually outshines an entire supporting cast of big-screen veterans. That child actor is 7-year old Onata Aprile, and the lack of posturing she does in What Maisie Knew is nothing short
of Oscar gold.
Aprile plays a daughter torn between the prepubescent selfishness of her recently-divorced parents. Those parents, played by Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore, are regressing at the very same pace that their daughter is evolving. As a result, they tend to bounce her back and forth like a pinball, using her as everything from a defense mechanism to a diversion. The film, which is loosely based on a 19th-century novel by Henry James, benefits – in large part – thanks to Onata Aprile’s Maisie, who somehow manages to tether all of the other elements together.
Of particular interest is Maisie’s relationship with Lincoln – a surrogate father figure played by Alexander Skarsgard. The symbiotic dynamic between these two is fascinating because it: a) represents the strongest arc in terms of character development, and b) is indicative of the perennial “bad uncle” complex (i.e., the oft-misunderstood grown-up who actually represents the ideal role model for a child). Otherwise, Julianne Moore is spot-on as the rocker mom with no time for her kids and Joanna Vanderham is equally effective as the naive Scottish nanny who gets caught up in the middle.
All told, What Maisie Knew is a poignant reminder that the most important values we learn in life are the ones that are taught to us as children. The screenplay is well-written, well acted, adapted, and directed. It’s an outstanding date movie in the dearest-yet-darkest sense of the term, and I highly recommend it.
Oh, and PS. Give Onata Aprile all the Oscars, if you would. It’s the least of what she deserves.
(What Maisie Knew opens in limited release this coming Friday, May 3rd.)