Or, The Amazing Adventures Of The Worst Parents In The World. Shifting Henry James’ novel into the 21st century, Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, The Deep End) stick pensive, impetuous Maisie (Onata Aprile) in the midst of a messy separation between unmarried parents Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan. As the acrimony between her rock-singer mom and art-dealer dad grows, the 7-year-old is shuttled back and forth between them. They grapple for custody, but leave her stranded after school on their respective pick-up days; the point isn’t to spend time with their child, but to keep their rival away.
The gamesmanship grows more intense as Coogan and Moore try to establish new lives for themselves. Acting on desires that are painfully obvious from the start, Coogan asks Aprile’s pretty young nanny (Joanna Vanderham) to live with him. When Moore uses his living-in-sin to try to win back custody, the father and the help are quickly wed. Moments later, sweetly dopey Alexander Skarsgård shows up to the principal’s office, announcing that he’s Moore’s new husband. The bad decisions pile up like cars on a wet freeway, but through it all, Aprile maintains an almost eerie calm, guilelessly taking in each new development and storing it away for future therapy sessions.
James’ innovation was recounting the lives of selfish parents through the eyes of their abandoned child, but while McGehee and Siegel—working from a script by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright—maintain that structure, it feels less like they’re inside Aprile’s head and more like they’re peering over her shoulder. The girl’s parents are self-involved beyond belief, even more than might be explained by a child’s lack of understanding. If the idea is for the audience to feel similarly yanked around, then What Maisie Knew succeeds wildly, but it fails to bring much insight to what essentially amounts to a massive parental guilt trip.