LOS ANGELES (AP) - A broken-family melodrama with a minimum of histrionics, Scott McGehee's and David Siegel's "What Maisie Knew" begins from scenes that will be familiar to most viewers who've witnessed a custody battle. Things get pretty orchestrated from that familiar scenario onward, but never to the point of unbelievability. The sad tidiness of the film's resolution (and the way it departs from the Henry James book it's based on) makes it all the more appealing.
Maisie is a six year-old New Yorker (Onata Aprile) in a position to know a great deal. She knows her rock-star mother (Julianne Moore) is too busy arguing with Dad (Steve Coogan) to pay for the pizza delivery she ordered; she knows Dad tries extra hard to be cute when her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) is in the room. She knows Mom and Dad aren't going to live together anymore, and there's a lot of arguing over how much time she'll spend with him.
Most importantly, she knows how to keep some of these things at bay - as the adult relationships around her grow more disturbed, she coasts along as best she can, wisely choosing ignorance when Mom asks if Daddy (now in his own apartment, with the nanny there to help when Maisie's with him) is ever so happy to see Margo that he gives her a kiss.
He is, of course, and when he marries his former employee, Maisie's mother Susanna feels she must compete in the court's eyes - making her own home just as family-like by marrying a younger man (Alexander Skarsgerd's Lincoln) she hardly knows. The closest thing to an innocent in all this aside from Maisie, Lincoln - a lanky Southerner whose body sometimes seems to fold inward on itself in deference to those around him - can't help but befriend the girl, a development that (to a perhaps implausible degree) disturbs Susanna. "You don't get a bonus for making her fall in love with you," Susanna snaps at one point, making us wonder whether that's a literal comment, and she has actually paid the bartender to be a prop husband.
What's more emotionally abusive to a child whose parents have split - failing to show up for days when it's time for her to stay at your place (both sides are guilty here), or spending your time with her on loud, "he can't get away with this" phone calls to a lawyer? Steve Coogan's Beale is an up-front narcissist; Susanna needs her daughter's welfare as an excuse to make everything about her own desires.
Moore has the most complicated part to play here, as a woman who really believes she loves her daughter more than anything but is blind to what such a devotion might mean in practice. Over and over, she relies on Lincoln to pick Maisie up from school, watch her when a gig beckons, improvise when necessary. It's inevitable that he will come to identify with Margot, who fills the same role for Beale.
And another thing Maisie knows is to trust the people who actually take care of her - never voicing an allegiance that would exclude anyone she cares for, but eagerly accepting love that's offered in the form of actions as well as words. In this modern take on a century-old story, that distinction remains the most valuable one of all.
"What Maisie Knew," a Millennium Entertainment release, is rated R for language. Running time: 98 minutes.