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What Maisie Knew (2013)

Studio:  Red Crown Productions

Distributed By: Millennium Entertainment

Theatrical Release: May 3, 2013 (Limited)

Blu Ray Release: August 13, 2013

Director:  Scott McGehee, David Siegel

Rating:  R

Reviewed By James M. Dubs

Many film fans, including myself, sometimes forget that Hollywood is propelled first as a business and dead last as an art form.  As a film student I was naïve enough to think that good art equals successful films.  Then I grew up, had kids, and learned how the real world operates.  The powers that be are empowered to churn out the fifteenth remake of the latest Paranormal Activity and develop every comic book franchise as long as that’s where we choose to spend our money.  That’s not a criticism, but rather a statement of reality.  Add in every half-successful tween book series, sprinkle in some romantic comedies for variety, and the market is saturated.

The smaller, personal films like What Maisie Knew sometimes, but not always, find their audiences in the art-house cinema circuit.  However, unless you live in a major metropolitan area, the chances of you getting to see these films is slim to none until they hit home video.  And even then, with so many other choices, why should you pass up Star Trek Into Darkness for a little known film that received zero national attention?

Film [Rating: 4]

Adapted from Henry James’ 1897 novel by the same name, and revised to take place in modern New York City, What Maisie Knew is a simple, tender, and sometimes heartbreaking tale told from the perspective of 7-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile), who is caught in the middle of a bitter custody battle between her aging-rock-star mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and her charming, but absent father, Beale (Steve Coogan).  Things become increasingly complicated when Susanna and Beale leverage new significant others, Lincoln and Margo (played to perfection by Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham) as a means to out maneuver the other in both the courts and Maisie’s own affections.

Unlike many films featuring child actors, Director’s McGehee and Siegel have succeeded in fleshing out the characters into real, living, breathing people.  Young Onata Aprile is not only believable as Maisie but arguably gives the best performance of the ensemble.  The characters, themes, and drama are so fully realized and perfectly executed that you forget about the movie and become completely and emotionally engaged.  Furthermore, by telling the story from Maisie’s perspective, the directors expertly lead us by the hand, as if we are 7-year-olds ourselves, and allow us to grow, discover, and love with Maisie.  And as she encounters fear, disappointment, and sadness…we feel disgust, frustration, and anger.

On the surface, it looks and sounds like your typical "child stuck in the middle of a divorce" drama, and audiences have reacted as such.  Internet Movie Database estimates the film’s budget totaling at about $6  million, while only taking in a little over $1 million domestically during a very brief and limited art-house theatrical run.  Ouch!  But appearances can be deceiving and What Maisie Knew offers a different approach to a recognizable kind of tale, grounding the drama not with the adults, but within the unconditional love from a child.

Video & Audio [Rating: 4.5]

Funny enough, because I was so engrossed in the story I barely took notice of the video and audio presentation, but that is what makes it so spectacular.  With cineplexes filling multiple screens with special effects juggernauts, and adopting a "louder is better" attitude, it's easy to under value a package like this one.  However, the image created by Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens is so natural that it perfectly complements the film as a whole.  The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless soundtrack captures the noise and ambiance of New York City, and the natural clarity of the sound effects help punctuate some of the more dramatic scenes.

Extras [Rating: 2]

What Maisie Knew contains a director commentary track that covers a broad range of topics.  It's not the kind of entertaining track for mass audiences, but film students and aficionados will value its addition.  The disc also includes four deleted scenes, and a few previews for Millennium Entertainment features.

Overall [Rating: 4]

Admittedly, as a parent with limited time and an over-abundance of movie choices, in most instances I would pass by What Maisie Knew for your typical blockbuster.  But for anyone reading this review, I recommend that you put down World War Z, or Iron Man 3 just this one time.  What Maisie Knew may not have special effects or a top billed cast, but it is tender, heartbreaking, uplifting, and has the potential to move the soul in big ways.  Movies like this should be recognized and celebrated, but if we don’t start supporting this kind of film, Hollywood will simply continue to produce less of them.

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