Based on the Henry James novel (1897), “What Daisy Knew” is a remarkable film about parental dysfunction, relationships gone bad, and a precocious, wonderful child who sees through it all.
The directors, Scot McGehee and David Siegel, update and alter the novel somewhat and set it in present day New York. They change the vocations of the parents, played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, respectively, and compress the time frame for the story. But it works. Its tight construction and effortless flow make it work, subtly, without calling attention to itself.
Maisie, played by Onata Aprile, in a performance that is stunning for its naturalness and understated quality, must navigate through the labyrinth of divorce, betrayal and negligence, as she is shuffled off between parents and their new love interests. A child of six, she adapts, grows wiser, seemingly wiser than her parents or the two younger, far more responsible substitutes. Her mother, a rock star with an erratic work schedule, sets up a marriage of convenience with a bartender friend, played by Alexander Skarsgard, and Maisie falls for him. Her father, an art dealer with an erratic schedule, marries the nanny (played by Joanna Vanderham) for undefined reasons. We don’t know if they’re romantically involved, and subsequent events cast doubt on that possibility. Maisie loves her as well, despite the confusion.
A key moment for me is when her mother returns unexpectedly from her music tour, in the middle of the night, and wants Maisie to get on the bus with her right away. Maisie is staying with the nanny and the bartender at the beach, who now have their own budding romance, and is excited about going on a boat on the morrow. The mother doesn’t understand the import of this and says she can always go on a boat at another time. The film doesn’t tell us how to see this moment, but it shows us through Maisie’s eyes, and then the eyes of her mom. To a child of six, every adventure is incredibly important. They haven’t built up enough experiences to see any of them as easily postponed. They all loom large in a child’s mind, and they lack the jaded notion that it’s no big deal what we do. We can always do it some other time.
Of course, as adults, we tell ourselves this and we seldom make good on our promises of make-ups and rain checks. That trip we promised ourselves and had to postpone just never happens. Children don’t understand the concept, as they live far more in the moment, with each moment being a really big deal. When we lose that sense, we lose a big, essential chunk of our lives.
Maisie, and the actress who plays her, seem to know this. The directors (and Mr. James) apparently do as well.