Six-year-old Maisie, the protagonist of What Maisie Knew (played by Onata Aprile), lives in a deluxe Manhattan flat with her warring parents Susanna (Julianne Moore), a horridly selfish rock music singer, and Beale (Steve Coogan), a like-minded art dealer. But not for long.
No more than ten minutes into the unabashedly heartwarming drama by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Uncertainty, Suture) — adapted from the 1897 novel by Henry James — Maisie’s folks break up. They’re always racing off on business trips anyway, and their fighting is a constant worry that plays out on Maisie’s face as she eavesdrops on them, so she misses them the way she would miss a sore tooth that finally falls out. Luckily for her, Mom and Dad find new mates. Maisie’s nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), ends up with Beale, and Susanna marries a bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). Most importantly, Maisie is shown to be able to take care of herself just fine. The movie is about how she does it.
Adorable little girls in dire straits, of course, have been a staple of cinema from the beginning — think of Abigail Breslin, Drew Barrymore, Natalie Portman, Zazie dans le Métro, Gaby Hoffmann, et al. What happens to Maisie essentially happened to Shirley Temple two or three times a year for a decade. The worse it gets for Little Miss Maisie, the more we rejoice when she finally finds that happy home we know she deserves. If you want unpredictability, this is not your movie. One-Kleenex cuteness under duress, yes.
The kid is goofy-sweet and innocent, with a bewildered expression that could charm even a pizza delivery man, let alone Byron the doorman. Perhaps we’ll hear from Ms. Aprile again. Julianne Moore’s Susanna is a bit of a child herself, solidly in the mold of other stressed moms in Moore’s filmography (The Kids Are All Right, Savage Grace, Children of Men). And Coogan more or less specializes in non-sequiturs, so it’s no surprise when half-a-daddy Beale goes missing. Anything at all might have happened to Maisie, but her perils are small ones. That’s all we need to know.