Bright Wall/ Dark Room Film Review

What Maisie Knew (2012)


by Erica Bean

The first time I encountered two parents fighting I was fifteen years old, and they were not my parents. They were the parents of my first boyfriend, and it was a shock to the system to hear such ugly words being hurled across a kitchen island. I was one of the lucky ones whose parents were still happily married, though this happiness did nothing to prepare me for a real world full of arguing adults. Their love never showed me all the ways that married people sometimes do not love—or even like—one other.

As an adult I can understand why my boyfriend didn’t seem disconcerted in any way, but as a teenager, I could only stare in surprise at him as he took me by the hand and walked with me into the backyard to sit by the pool. We sat at the edge of the pool and made circles in the water with our feet.

I pretended not to hear the arguing still going on, but all those angry words smashed into a million pieces inside of me, shattering everything I thought I knew about the way people were supposed to speak to each other. I wondered how my boyfriend survived, how he coped all these years. I remember asking him, has it always been this way? He answered casually, practiced—I don’t know anything different. His words marked a distinct point in our relationship where I felt the gap between what he knew and what I thought I knew about life. From the pool where we sat, I could hear the tone, the inflections, the harshness. The lovely, gracious people I had known for so many years had turned into people I no longer recognized. We rested our backs on the hot cement under the summer sun, our knees hanging over the edge of the pool.


This is what I think about when I see Maisie watching her parents yelling at each other. I think of the ripples, and the affects of that loudness, the piercing harshness. I see her recognize the arguing, the angry look on her mother’s face when she is calling her father an asshole, and I see her take herself away—shifting her body to a place away from all the noise—with a look on her face that says all this fighting is normal. She no longer hears it. Instead, Maisie is humming, she is playing tic-tac-toe, or laughing with her nanny, she is letting herself win at her own game, drawn on a pizza box with a blue crayon.

What Maisie Knew has two directors, David Siegal and Scott McGehee, and the cast is exceptional: Julianne Moore as the mother, Alexander Skarsgård as Lincoln, Joanna Vanderham as Margo the nanny, and Steve Coogan as Maisie’s father. Though in the end it is Onata Aprile, as Maisie, that we can’t look away from. Hers is a soft voice in a loud room, a smiling child despite a temperamental mother, a tiny and perceptive human being, wholly focused through the camera as she carries the film with her two tiny hands, every moment a graceful reminder of what it means to forgive all of those who let us down.


Maisie’s parents do all the things parents shouldn’t do when they are divorcing. They force her to take sides, they ask her about the other parent’s life. Maisie keeps herself occupied as her parents remain preoccupied with their own lives, spending far more time fighting about their daughter than actually spending any time with her. She is watching the secrets form, the way they weave in and out of her life. She is left to wait late, after school, forgotten by her mother and her father. She is a patient, and obedient child, but still a child. She often doesn’t understand what is happening all around her.

Her father marries Margo, and her mother marries Lincoln. The nanny is now her new step-mother, and a bartender her new step-father. The hardest part of watching What Maisie Knew is watching Maisie navigate her way through this new, dismantled world in quiet solitude. And yet, she remains the brightest spot in every scene—she is the shining light, the laughter and joy and color on a summer day. She is too young to feel resentful toward her parents, the way they wander in and out of her days. Maisie is the reason the pieces of her fractured family keep smashing into each other like stained glass, bright and sharp and shattered, but she forgives them for breaking. She loves them in spite of it. Because, despite the terrible ways in which they behave, they are her parents, her biggest sense of permanency. She consistently displays her sense of forgiveness, choosing to love her mother and father despite their mistakes, or their absence. Maisie’s childhood innocence and habitual love creates a bubble in which she finds a way to survive her parents’ divorce.


As an adult I know that life is not always conclusive, that failures usually speak to the heavy burdens we’re forced to carry on our own, and the ways we get stuck when trying to let them go. Sometimes the questions are hard but the answers are easy. People are complex: it’s not as simple as mothers or fathers not wanting their children, even if they have the utmost obligation in their heart to do so. We see Maisie being held and kissed by her mother and told that she is loved while also being left, or forgotten, or playing in her room, watching her mother cry. Everything we know is everything Maisie knows.

In the unfolding of her days Maisie still finds joy despite all the shuffling from parent to parent, from place to place. Even while she listens one morning as her father tells her he is moving to England, her small mouth chewing up her breakfast, there is that unwavering grace, a small resilience smoothing out the edges of her new life without all the things she used to know.

Margo takes Maisie to a beach house. Here, she can be a child. She runs into the sea, the cold water rushing over her bare feet. Her small hands building something, even if only with crumbling, dry grains of sand. She sits on the shore and holds a shell up to her ear, listening to the ocean. She is listening to a world that is finally listening to her back.

Her mother comes for her one evening. “Let’s go Maisie,” she says. But Maisie doesn’t move. “Maisie, come on,” she repeats, impatient, the tour bus parked and waiting. But Maisie wants to stay, she wants to go on the boat the next day like she was promised. She does not want to leave behind hope in exchange for disappointment. Her mother, for once in touch with an awareness outside of herself, understands this with sharp clarity.


“Do you know who your mother is?” her voice breaks to ask, kneeling in front of her daughter, scared that she has been replaced by the very people she’s had to rely on to take care of Maisie in her absence. But Maisie, her beautiful and delicate daughter, does not let her mother fall through the cracks.

“You,” Maisie replies softly, placing her hand on her mothers shoulder, in reassurance. In comfort.

On that summer day when I was fifteen, I can see how like Maisie I was—the child in a room full of knowing adults. I knew nothing more than what I’d been told, or what belonged to me from my own limited experiences. The things I thought I knew were changing, but on that day, this is what I knew for sure: that there was arguing inside a beautiful house and that it was summer and I was young and that I knew so very little about people, about how they could lash out in hurt, or how they coped with all the twisted things inside of themselves. All I knew was that I needed to keep moving, to keep breaking the surface of the water at my feet. I knew that I had a lifetime ahead of me to figure it out.


Originally posted at Bright Wall/ Dark Room