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Film / What Maisie Knew

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What Maisie Knew is a 2012 film directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegal and stars Onata Aprile as the titular character. The film also features Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Joanna Vanderham and Steve Coogan. The film is based on the 1897 book of the same name by Henry James, albeit with a modern update.

Like it's source material, the film centres on a primary school girl named Maisie, who does not have a good personal life as her parents are constantly arguing against and spiting each other and have a general tendency to use her as leverage. What ensues is Maisie being largely ignored by her biological parents as she instead develops a bond with the family nanny, Margo and her mother's new boyfriend, Lincoln.


The film provides examples of

  • Abusive Parents: A more psychological and indirect version as Maisie is neglected by her parents who can't catch a break on hating one another, which does nothing other than damage the girl's emotional nature.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: Downplayed as both the book and film versions end with Maisie getting adopted. What is different however is that Maisie ends up getting adopted by different characters instead and reconciles with Susanna.
  • Adaptational Distillation: Some parts of the book, especially Mrs. Wix are removed. Additionally, the film narratively focuses solely on Maisie's childhood and hence, the timeskip aspects seen in the book is absent as well.
  • Adaptational Name Change: Ida's name is changed to Susanna in the film. Additionally, Sir Claude and Miss Overmore are respectively changed to Lincoln and Margo.
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  • Adaptational Nationality: Given that the setting is moved to NYC, the rest of the characters are American. Averted with Beale who remains British.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy:
    • Downplayed with the biological parents. While the hatred between Beale and Susanna remains intact, there is a stronger emphasis on the two of them looking after Maisie, with both of them expressing a desire to take Maisie out to tour with them.
    • A stronger, more direct example exists with Lincoln and Margo, who looking after Maisie for the first few times come to eventually care for and love the girl as if it were their own.
  • Adapted Out: Mrs. Wix is entirely omitted in the film adaptation.
  • Adult Fear: Maisie falling asleep outside of her apartment late at night whilst waiting for Susanna. The apartment staff thankfully notice and take her upstairs to be given shelter.
  • Adults Are Useless: It goes back-and-forth, depending on which adult it is. While Beale and Susanna are willing to look after Maisie, it doesn't really stick as their interests and feud overrides their daughter's well-being. Margo and Lincoln avert this by being more attentive and understanding of Maisie's situation.
  • Animal Motifs: One can make the assumption that Maisie can be connected to fishes. Fishes tend to represent feelings, health, intelligence, happiness, strength and endurance. Maisie has a major association with her emotions, namely sadness and loneliness which plays a factor into her feelings and mental health. She is also wise for her age and is at her most happy when with a company that dotes on her affectionately and goes through a lot to earn her goal of achieving both a healthy mind and parental guardians, which links to how fishes tend to be social animals. Furthering this is how Maisie, at one point, wears a blue dress with white fish patterns.
  • The Antagonist: It's initially between Beale and Susanna that's the main source of Maisie's turmoil, though the latter takes more involvement in the girl's life. Susanna is selfish and demanding but averts being a Big Bad because while she instigates the central conflict, she not evil nor wants to extend said conflict.
  • Big Applesauce: In contrast to the source material which was set in England, the film adaptation takes place in New York City, with a shot that emphasizes on the Empire State Building at night and a scene in Central Park when Maisie becomes interested in turtles.
  • Big Fancy House: Maisie's household is a spacious, two-storey flat room that even contains a separate playroom for Maisie and a studio room which Susanna uses for her music.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: In a sense. Normally, Beale and Susanna should have been totally distant, but with them sharing a daughter, they are forced to fight against each other for custodial rights. Then Beale marries the family nanny, Margo, and in a rushed retaliation, Susanna marries Lincoln. It doesn't take long before this dissolves too because all of this links towards to Maisie, who only wants the love and affection any child wants from their parents. Even if Margo and Lincoln are active guardians and win Maisie's affection, this doesn't stop Beale and Susanna from arguing about the fact that Maisie is theirs to raise.
  • Bookworm: Of the Cute variant; Maisie is shown to enjoy reading and, at one point, eagerly recites a chapter of Life in the Castle in front of Susanna and Lincoln.
  • Break the Cutie: Maisie goes through a lot of emotional turbulence throughout the film, the of which being the total neglect and lack of love given to her by her biological parents. While Margo and Lincoln are able to provide some degree of happiness, Maisie's parents always find some way of ruining it once they start demanding to give Maisie back at some points.
  • The Caretaker: Margo, being Beale's new wife is naturally there to take care of Maisie whenever he and Susanna are present. Later on, Lincoln is introduced to be Beale's replacement, given that Susanna was in a relationship with him by that point.
  • Children Are Innocent: Maisie remains morally unaffected throughout the film and sometimes find it difficult to comprehend her parents' actions and words as she doesn't properly understand them yet.
  • Cheerful Child: When not bogged down by her parent's constant arguing, Maisie is adorably playful.
  • Curtains Match the Windows: Maisie has brown hair and brown eyes.
  • The Cutie: Maisie is naturally this; a precocious and gentle girl who normally tries to do her best to enjoy company and lead a normal, carefree life.
  • Deadpan Snarker: When seeing Maisie play with turtles, Lincoln and Margo have a conversation about the reptile with the latter musing how he tried to pet one in his youth, only to have his finger badly scarred. When Margo looks at Lincoln's finger, he wryly comments on the current situation:
    Lincoln: I was bitten by a turtle once.
    Margo: Were you really?
    Lincoln: Yeah... yeah. It even left a scar on if you...
    Margo: Rea... really?
    Lincoln: It could have left a scar. It's that bad. It could have left a scar.
    Margo: Right, yeah. So, is it quite traumatic For you being back here with the turtles?
    Lincoln: It was. This is kind like therapy for me.
    Margo: Oh! It is? Okay.
    Lincoln: Meeting the beast again.
  • Disappeared Dad: Downplayed, given that he is around up until 2/3 of the film, but Beale has much less time to deal with Maisie, instead being out on art tours. As the final act nears, Beale isn't seen again, having moved away to London with a failed attempt at convincing Maisie to come along.
  • Disapproving Look: Maisie and Susanna's final meeting is mostly the former not happy with the latter's arrival, just staring at the latter in bewilderment and worry as Susanna starts making promises a little too late. It's when she starts mentioning taking her to tour where Maisie begins to frown in disappointment, not willing to leave her new parental guardians behind.
  • Disneyland Dad: Susanna is a Type II; she's not there for Maisie as much as any normal parent would, instead being out in her rock concerts, which leaves her daughter neglected and under the care of Margo and Lincoln, who soon begin to challenge her authority as a parent. When she comes to the beach house to pick up Maisie from her guardians, Susanna tries to allure her with the prospect of gifts and going to tour together. It doesn't end well for Susanna.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Maisie eventually gets adopted by a couple who are beginning to appreciate and love each other and the last shot is of the girl playfully running towards a boat.
  • Entitled Bastard: Beale and Susanna are adamant in thinking only they could properly take care of Maisie and her needs when that's clearly not the case. Later, Susanna tries to convince Maisie to come with her to tour, after the latter had already become adjusted to becoming a surrogate daughter to Margo and Lincoln, who showed more parental instincts to her than either Susanna or Beale ever did.
  • Fatal Flaw: Beale and Susanna can be connected with Sloth which would go hand-in-hand with their neglectful and ineffectual parenting towards Maisie. Susanna also exhibits Wrath as she is much more prone to lashing out against those who prove to be a better guardian than Maisie, which then crosses into Envy. These play a major factor in Maisie becoming dismayed and fearful of Susanna.
  • Fell Asleep Crying: Maisie sheds a tear when tucked into bed late into the film, having gone through a lot of turmoil regarding the custody battle between Susanna, Beale, Margo and Lincoln and being all alone without any sort of company.
  • Fiery Redhead: Susanna, albeit not in the best way possible as she comes off as temperamental and prone to arguing towards others when it comes to the custody of her daughter Maisie.
  • The Film of the Book: Well, duh! That said, there are a lot of differences between the book and the adaptation as stated above.
  • Foil:
    • Maisie and Susanna have a very differing contrast between a mother and her daughter. Both have a desire to be loved, but their way of perceiving it doesn't align. Maisie wants to be loved by her parents because as a child, she intrinsically needs the guidance and support of an older guardian. Susanna wants her daughter's affection and while she does genuinely love her, there is a darker undertone in that she is acting out of spite towards Beale and feels entitled to have Maisie. Their personalities also contrast heavily; Maisie is a compassionate and friendly little girl who takes her situation seriously whilst maintaining a stoic disposition. Susanna, on the other hand, is rash and temperamental who handles her situations by getting into arguments and shouting against those who challenge her position as Maisie's mother.
    • Susanna and Margo is another one; both are legal guardians to Maisie, with Susanna being her biological mother whereas Margo is her nanny and, later on, stepmother. That said, Susanna is more fixated on settling a score against Beale for Maisie's custody and, even then, is hardly there for her, instead being out on rock tours. Margo, on the other hand, initially butts heads against Lincoln, but eventually become a loving couple and treats Maisie as if she were her own daughter, eventually developing a deep and understanding bond with one another.
    • Beale and Lincoln are wholly different from one another. Both are the main male guardians for Maisie, with Beale being her biological father and Lincoln being her stepfather via marrying Susanna. Beale also sports a professional look due to his job as an art dealer whereas Lincoln looks rather gaunt and unassuming. Both display unsure feelings about taking care of Maisie, but Beale is constantly challenged by Susanna and decides to leave her by going back to London whereas Lincoln manages to get along and start a relationship with Margo whilst also essentially supplanting Beale's role as Maisie's father.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Downplayed. As a child, Maisie is understandably naive and finds some difficulty trying to grasp the situation her biological parents are tied into. She is an avid bookreader, is reserved and polite and overall is probably the nicest little kid you'd come across.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Margo is the sole major character in the film who is blond. Despite being her nanny and later stepmother through her marriage to Beale, she ends up being a far better parent for Maisie than Beale and Susanna as she is honest kind and willing to look after Maisie as if she were her own child.
  • Hands-Off Parenting: This is ultimately how Beale and Susanna treat Maisie; while they are in the girl's presence at some points, they spend more time bickering about the other spouse, not realizing that they are ignoring Maisie and focusing on their own interests. It gets so bad to the point where Maisie starts to prefer having Margo and Lincoln as her guardians instead. When Susanna tries to pick up Maisie from Margo and Lincoln, the latter only has this to say after an argument:
    Lincoln: You don't deserve her!
  • Happily Adopted: Alongside loving them, Maisie comes to see Margo and Lincoln as far better parental figures than Beale and Susanna and in the end, they're shown playing beside their new vacation home near a lake.
  • Hates Being Alone: While hate might be too strong for a word, it is shown that Maisie, being a child, desires company in her school and home life. While she's adjusted in the former, there's no such luck on the latter, which leaves her depressed and withdrawn. It also doesn't help that whenever her biological parents are at her home, they spend more time bickering and shouting at one another rather than keeping an eye out on their daughter.
  • Heal the Cutie: The ending implies that Maisie was able to find the happiness and parental comfort that she really needed with Margo and Lincoln, both of whom have nurtured her better than Beale and Susanna.
  • The Heart: Maisie is functionally this to Beale and Susanna, though it doesn't last. While Margo and Lincoln's first meeting with one another was antagonistic, Maisie's presence with the two of them is what brings them together to the point where they get romantically involved with each other by the end.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: It's clear from the film's premise that outside of school, Maisie just wants her parents' attention and affection, which is unfortunately rarely reciprocated, even if they try to genuinely express it. This neglect and lack of attention strikes a toll on the girl's emotional health and is the primary impetus of her struggles to be loved and looked after.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: While Susanna is selfish and keeps screwing up in trying to spend time and provide for Maisie, she does care about her enough to buy her gifts and express her love. Eventually, when she realizes Maisie would prefer to be with Margo and Lincoln, she brings her gifts and they hug each other one last time, resulting in an amicable separation.
  • I Want My Mommy!: When she wakes up after getting picked up sleeping outside, Maisie begs for her mother to arrive and pick her up, not stopping until Margo shows up to comfort her.
  • It's All About Me: Susanna thinks she knows and has Maisie's best interests and doesn't consider the fact that others may or may prove themselves to be better than her in that regard. While she does love her daughter, it doesn't change the fact that Susanna is quick to butt heads against anybody who either acknowledges Maisie's needs and company and who can be there for her as a parental figure, as Margo and Lincoln demonstrate. Susanna can't comprehend the idea of anyone being Maisie's parent than her, anyone else be damned.
  • Jealous Parent: Susanna does not take it well that Maisie prefers Margo and Lincoln over her. She tells her daughter several times to come back to her, even when it seems clear that Maisie would like to spend time with her guardians. This escalates to a point where Susanna confronts Lincoln and Maisie at a busy street, having been absent for days and immediately begins to demand that the former give Maisie back to her, inciting a harsh debate between the two.
  • Jerkass: Both of Maisie's parents, given that they come off as verbally aggressive, spiteful and rude toward the other. Later on, Susanna begins to exhibit this trait towards Margo and Lincoln when her authority of being Maisie's mother becomes challenged and doesn't take it well.
  • Kids Love Dinosaurs: Maisie has a toy Apatosaurus at her home and has a few other assortments of kids-based dinosaur memorabilia.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Up until Margo and Lincoln become more active, Maisie is usually on her own, struggling to deal with her parents' feud against one another. She does have friends in primary school as shown with Zoe, but they aren't shown all too often. This gets Played for Drama once Maisie falls asleep outside her apartment, waiting for her guardians.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Downplayed given that both Beale and Susanna do want to have and raise Maisie. Still, they are not above telling Maisie about their situation in their perspectives, hoping to keep the girl to themselves and away from the other parent. Susanna later tries to attract Maisie by promising her with gifts and a duet on tour.
  • Minimalist Cast: Downplayed as there are few extra characters that show up now and then. Still, the film strictly places most of its emphasis on Maisie's viewpoint and her parental guardians.
  • My Beloved Smother: Susanna, who does whatever she could in her power to secure Maisie and her needs, going as far as to file a court case about custody rights against Beale. She only relents after realizing that Maisie really favours Margo and Lincoln over her.
  • Narcissist: Both parents. In fact, much of their disdain towards one another is because they want to keep Maisie for themselves and to assert that she is theirs to raise. Susanna may be more so as she doesn't take it well that Margo and Lincoln turn out to be better guardians than her which results in an intense argument between her and Lincoln in the middle of a busy street.
  • Nice Girl: Maisie is a reserved, sweet, gentle and compassionate little girl who just wants to seek good companionship and have fun with them. Margo also fits this pretty well; while she can get angry and lash out, she's ultimately a nice and reserved woman who tries to do what is best for Maisie.
  • Nice Guy: Lincoln is a lax, yet caring man who takes Maisie very seriously and is open to hanging out with her.
  • No Father Allowed: Susanna tries to invoke this towards Beale by filing a court case favouring her in adopting Maisie. She fails, not to mention Maisie finding more suitable parental figures anyway.
  • Not in Front of the Kid: Averted. Susanna is not above cursing viciously towards Beale, even if Maisie is close by. To make matters worse, she does it once in school, in front of a staff member when Beale decided to pick Maisie up to spend time together.
  • Oh, Crap!: Failing to convince Maisie to come along with her on tour, Susanna becomes verbally aggressive towards her. It doesn't take long before she realizes that she just alienated her daughter further. This confirms to Susannah that she really isn't the ideal parent for her and that she is better off being looked after by Margo and Lincoln.
  • Parental Abandonment: By the second half of the film, Beale, unable to have Maisie join him and finding it difficult to raise a child, decides to depart to London and this marks the end of their relationship. Two occasions of this also occur with Susanna; the first time is a harrowing experience for Maisie, who falls asleep outside of her apartment and has to be taken inside by the staff. The second time is permanent, although Maisie and Susanna do leave each other on good terms, given that they retain some sentimentality and love towards one another.
  • Parental Neglect: As with its original source material, Beale and Susanna are so engrossed in hating and complaining about one another that they don't pay attention to Maisie nor do they acknowledge that their actions are emotionally damaging their daughter either.
  • Parental Substitute: Margo and Lincoln are Maisie's babysitters, but they turn out to look after and understand her needs far better than Beale and Susanna do and end up becoming better guardians than them. It's telling when in the finale, Maisie's body language makes it clear she would rather stay with Margo and Lincoln than go out on tour with Susanna.
  • Parents as People: While they are selfish, Maisie's parents aren't bad people as much they are just incredibly flawed.
    • Beale is incredibly insecure about whether he can be a good father to Maisie or not. He does give some attempts to look after his daughter but is halted by circumstances related to either Susanna, Margo or his work.
    • Susanna is more visible than Beale, but spends a lot of her time in her music career and tries to make up for it by buying numerous gifts for Maisie. Despite her flaws, she does have Maisie's interests at heart and eventually decides to depart on bittersweet terms after realizing Maisie prefers Margo and Lincoln.
  • Perpetual Frowner: While Maisie can be happy and excitable when she's with good company, mainly with her friend Zoey and Margo and Lincoln, the conflict between Beale and Susanna has left her despondent and more often than not, she appears sullen and not content in general.
  • Platonic Declaration of Love: In their final conversation, Susanna claims in rapid succession that she loves Maisie and would do anything for her. The problem is because of what Maisie had gone through, Susanna's attempts are largely ineffectual. Even then, she still retains their affection, given that they do hug each other.
  • Promoted to Parent: Averted with Margo who was married to Beale and serves as Maisie's caretaker from the beginning. Played straight with Lincoln, who while initially hesitant, becomes more focused and concerned about Maisie's well being. It culminates with the two of them playing at the street and visiting Central Park, which shows that Lincoln has supplanted Beale's role as Maisie's father.
  • Proper Lady: Maisie pretty much takes a lot of notes regarding this trope; she is kind, courteous, not afraid to speak her mind and pretty intellectual and precocious for her age. This is a contrast to her mother Susanna, who appears in a more casual look and has a rather abrasive nature towards anybody that isn't her daughter.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Played With and somewhat Justified as Maisie is a little girl and realistically would have difficulty trying to understand Beale and Susanna's behaviour and contempt towards one another. She judges her caretakers based on how they treat them. This gets increasingly Subverted as Maisie begins to wisen up and begin to disapprove of Beale and Susanna's actions based on what she gets to understand.
  • Put on a Bus: Beale has one last conversation with Maisie, asking her to come to London with him and trying to act like a genuine father. Given that Maisie approves of her Parental Substitutes more than him and Susanna, Beale departs, never to be seen in the film again.
  • Right Behind Me: Happens on some occasions whenever Susanna and Beale are arguing with one another. On more than one occasion, Maisie would wake up to see her parents fighting one another, after which they turn their attention towards her... while still expressing their hate towards each other more passively.
  • Ruder and Cruder: Unlike the novel, the film does contain some usage of swear language and gestures, with Susanna being the biggest example.
  • Setting Update: In contrast to the book version which was set in 19th Century England, the film instead takes place in New York City in the 2010s.
  • Shrinking Violet: While Maisie is social towards those she knows and gets along with, she has difficulty conversing with those whom she doesn't know. She was initially hesitant to go out with Lincoln when they met for the first time.
  • Single Tear: Maisie sheds a single tear while at her bed, an indication that she is exhausted and emotionally fragile of Susannah's failed attempts of looking after her and not being able to see Margo.
  • The Stoic: Maisie is normally quiet, which would stem from the fact that her parents' feud with one another would have rendered her like that and she tends to ask questions rather cautiously. Still, she isn't immune to suddenly becoming emotive.
  • Taking the Kid: Much of Beale and Susanna's arguments are about who gets to pick up and take care of Maisie, which escalates as Susanna tries to indict a court case regarding Maisie's adoption. Ultimately, both parents fail as Maisie instead favours Lincoln and Margo.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Maisie tends to become rather rattled and sadly reserved whenever she doesn't have a company or whenever her parents start arguing.
  • True Blue Femininity: Oftentimes, Maisie would be seen wearing a blue dress.
  • Turtle Power: Maisie becomes fascinated by turtles after seeing some at Central Park and urges Margo and later, Susanna, to buy her one. She spends a good deal of her time petting and looking after one after the ordeal.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Susanna does care about Maisie, wants to hang out and desires the best for her. Unfortunately, her demand towards her, absence and ineffectual parenting increasingly becomes more toxic towards the little girl.
  • When She Smiles: Maisie rarely smiles or giggles, given the general situation her personal life tends to be in. It's very resonating for such moments to occur as it indicates that the girl is truly enjoying her moment. This is most evident in the ending of the film.
  • Workaholic: Beale and Susanna are very much focused in their field of work; an art dealer and a rock band frontwoman respectively. This gets Deconstructed as this work behaviour further plays in their neglect and lack of care towards Maisie.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Maisie is pretty intelligent and understanding for a girl of her age. She doesn't throw judgement towards anybody, even if her parents don't do a good job at looking after her and has a reserved, yet endearing conversation with Lincoln about being rich and how being a bartender can help.
  • You're Not My Father: In the climax, Maisie's body language and her reserved but terrified disposition of Susanna's attempts and increasingly forced intentions of wanting to come with her all but say Maisie doesn't see Susannah as her mother. Somewhat subverted in that the two of them do hug one another before departing, showing that Maisie does retain some affection for Susanna despite their difficult relationship.


Video Example(s):


Maisie's Struggle

Maisie sheds a tear as she falls asleep, discontent and depressed about not being able to be with Margo and being accompanied back home.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / SingleTear

Media sources:

Main / SingleTear