The child’s-eye view of adult society is extremely difficult for the writer of a novel or a screenplay to pull off. At its worst, the result appears to be an exercise in the writer’s asking himself the question, “What would I think of this situation, if my IQ dropped 40 points?” But of course children aren’t dumber than adults; they’re just relatively ill-informed. (Which is, incidentally, a two-edged sword: They don’t know many of the truths that adults know, but on the other hand they also don’t know many of the falsehoods adults think are true.)
The new movie What Maisie Knew is based on a novel by Henry James, but don’t let that fact deter you from seeing it. It is set in today’s New York City, and it is an intelligent, highly successful attempt to tell the story of a divorce from the point of view of a six-year-old girl. I don’t think there was ever a time when it was easy to be a child — it involves, after all, being a new (and, quite understandably, unwilling) entrant into a confusing and terrifying universe; a job for which the entrant has absolutely zero prior relevant experience — but the social upheavals affecting the modern American family make being a child more bewildering than ever. Maisie (the winsome Onata Aprile) is the daughter of a rock star (Julianne Moore) and an art dealer (Steve Coogan), and in the course of the film she watches her parents’ marriage collapse and be replaced by a dizzying succession of new relationships and living arrangements.
On the obvious culture-war issues involved, the film sends an ambiguous message. On one hand, it portrays, as starkly as any conservative values maven would want, how disruptive divorce is in the life of a child. On the other, it shows that divorce is rarely the end of a story — there’s something about human beings that makes them want to pair off and become families, even when their prior attempts at doing this have failed, and resulted in great pain to all concerned. (You might even start to suspect that we were hard-wired to do this.) But at a level deeper than the political, the film succeeds in capturing an important aspect of human life; the characters are believable and engage our sympathy, and there’s a satisfying amount of laughs and tears along the way. Most impressive is that even when Moore and Coogan behave selfishly and immaturely, the script doesn’t reduce them to cardboard villainy; the little girl’s perspective retains a love of her parents even when they screw up.
Special praise to Coogan for playing a largely non-comic character while maintaining the likability that made him one of Britain’s favorite comedians; and to Alexander Skarsgård as a charming boy-man who struggles gamely to cope with his new role as a father.