The oldest film festival in all of the Americas kicked off its 56th iteration last night, and the first with new festival director Ted Hope (here's hoping he'll be a great director and stay on for many years--pun intended.) He kept his introductory remarks mercifully brief (I've been to a lot of festival opening nights, and they can get pretty long-winded) but the highlight was the announcement of the recipient of the Peter J. Owens acting award. It's...Harrison Ford! That gives him two Bay Area film festival awards in two months. No word yet on when his special night will be, and what movie they'll play (typically they do an on-stage interview followed by a screening of one of the honoree's classic films. There are so many you could choose from, but here's my dark horse pick--THE MOSQUITO COAST)
Anyway, we then got to the movie pretty quickly, which was WHAT MAISIE KNEW. I haven't read the Henry James novel this film is (apparently loosely) based on, I can't compare them. But I did find it interesting in the Q&A when one of the co-directors (I don't know if it was Scott McGehee or David Siegel) pointed out that James wrote it in 1897 after hearing at a dinner party about a couple who were going through a divorce and decided to share custody of their children. He thought that was the most ridiculous thing ever, and wrote a broad satire about it. Now it's the most normal thing in the world, and so adapting the story to the modern world is quite the challenge. But they do it with wit, grace, and characters that are believable despite being more than a little repugnant.
So let's start with the repugnant characters--the divorced parents. Julianne Moore plays Susanna, the mother. In the opening scenes she's actually very tender to her daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile, who was just as adorable live in the Q&A as she was on screen) singing her a lullaby instead of one of "her songs" like Maisie wants. See, Susanna is a semi-successful rock star. Over the course of the movie, she becomes more monstrous...unhinged...cracking under the pressure of trying to actually make a living touring while still being there for Maisie. Yeah, she doesn't exactly find that balance but I absolutely believed her sincerity when she says Maisie is the most important thing in her life--she just doesn't always succeed at demonstrating that.
Then the father, Beale (Steve Coogan.) Other than a brief scene of pizza dinner at his place, the first introduction we get of him is when he's angrily banging on Susanna's door in the middle of the night demanding to see his daughter. At first, you think he's the beast and totally sympathize with Susanna. But soon you do see how he's at least a fun father--when he has the time for her. He's an art dealer who is constantly traveling the world making deals. And he's pretty darn slick. One audience member in the Q&A commented that he was a little less monstrous than Susanna, but I actually think he's just as monstrous (if not more), he's just usually better at playing the game of pretending to be a good parent. No wonder he wins shared custody. Without being told their past, I can totally understand their relationship. When they met, they were already both pretty selfish, career-oriented people. And that was fine when it was just them. They could both focus on their work, and in their downtime enjoy each other's company. But when a baby entered the picture, as much as they loved their daughter it necessarily forces you to be unselfish. And neither one of them adapted correctly to that, and the marriage broke apart. Nobody's fault...or both people's fault.
Oh yeah, Beale is also sleeping with their nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham.) She's a young, pretty blond and she loves taking care of Maisie so it actually is set to work out okay. At one point she seems to be the only character who actually cares about Maisie. So it makes sense that she and Beale get married (with Maisie as the flower girl.) But soon enough she gets burned by Beale's selfishness.
Meanwhile, more to keep up with Beale than anything else, Susanna marries her friend Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) a sort of aimless bartender who has never really had any priorities in his life. So there are your four adult leads--A mother who is more focused on her career than her daughter, a father who is likewise focused on his career, a nanny/stepmother whose career is taking care of Maisie, and a stepfather who hasn't had any focus in his life...until he met Maisie. Seeing him open up and really come alive with Maisie easily makes him the most likable of all of them (although in the Q&A Onata was very diplomatic and said she liked them all.)
Oh, and Onata as Maisie, she anchored everything beautifully. She really has a naturalness, innocence, and beauty only a child can possess. It would be so easy for her character to fall into the cliches of 'I don't like mommy/daddy, she/he yells at me!' but instead she genuinely loves all four of her parent figures (although it takes a moment for her to warm up to Lincoln.)
I think I've actually gone on way too long in this review. I've probably given too many spoilers. So now I'll be intentionally opaque about how it all plays out. Let me just say there was a point when I thought to myself, 'Well, this can all work out nicely if just this happens.' Then I kind of quickly dismissed that thought as too forced and cheesy. And ultimately, they pulled it off without it being forced or cheesy. Nicely done!
Running Time: 93 minutes
My Total Minutes: 324,379