Film review: What Maisie Knew - thinking of starting a family, or breaking one up? See this movie first

Bad parenting has rarely been portrayed with such delicacy or such pummelling power

You could call What Maisie Knew an atmospheric indie drama or a sensitive literary adaptation, but it would be just as accurate to call it a monster movie – even if the monsters in question leave emotional scars rather than physical ones.

Updating Henry James’s prescient novel, the film chronicles the bitter break-up of a glamorous Manhattan power couple (Julianne Moore’s rock chick and Steve Coogan’s art dealer), and their subsequent neglect of their six-year-old daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile). In court, Mum and Dad fight tooth and nail for sole custody, but afterwards neither seems keen to spend time with their offspring, leaving Maisie’s upbringing to their new trophy spouses, a nanny (Joanna Vanderham) and a bar tender (Alexander Skarsgard).Considering what a tear-jerker it could be, What Maisie Knew is laudably restrained. Its sunny camerawork and brisk pacing lend it a superficial breeziness, and instead of indulging in grandstanding confrontations or anguished speeches, it trips through a series of quick, piquant vignettes, all seen from the point of view of the young girl (played by Aprile with a total absence of child-star cutesiness). Beneath its summery surface, though, the film has a white-hot fury and an assassin’s precision. Its masterstroke is that Maisy’s toxic parents are both convinced that they love her, but neither of them realises that the ways they express that love  don’t mean much when they sprint off to check their emails a second later.

Anyone who is thinking of either starting a family or dismantling one should be legally obliged to watch What Maisie Knew first. Bad parenting has rarely been portrayed with such delicacy or such pummelling power.

Deep Throat was the 50 Shades of Grey of its day. That is, a cheap bit of titillation which became a money-spinning mega-hit and pushed sex-centric entertainment into the mainstream. The difference between the two phenomena – apart from the fact that Deep Throat was on celluloid, not paper – is that the woman behind the earlier one, Linda Lovelace, didn’t reap any rewards.

In Lovelace, she is played by the excellent Amanda Seyfried. In 1970, she’s plain Linda Boreman, a smiley suburbanite who shares a Florida bungalow with her strict religious parents (Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick) until she’s charmed away by Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), a club owner with complicated facial hair and a slick line in groovy patter. Short of cash, Traynor shows a home movie of Linda’s oral sex technique (Lovelace is strangely coy about the details) to a trio of medallion men (Hank Azaria, Bobby Cannavale and Chris Noth) who fancy themselves as moguls. “Jerry even wrote a script,” crows one of them. “Forty-two pages!” Boreman, renamed Linda Lovelace, is then paid a pittance to star in Deep Throat, a film which, financially speaking, goes on to rival anything that was produced in Hollywood.

What stops Lovelace being a Boogie Nights wannabe is that it tells its story twice. Half the film is a snappy, kitsch comedy, its emphasis on jokes, Seventies funk, and floral nylon shirts. The second half is a melodrama which divulges just how abusive Traynor was. It’s an inspired approach, but ultimately it’s not helpful. After all, it’s obvious from the moment we meet Traynor that he’s a manipulative creep, so the second half’s revelations hardly count as revelations at all. The bisecting of the tale leaves Lovelace with two thin and scrappy narratives when it would have been better off with one rich one.

NEXT WEEK Nicholas Barber sees Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg compare biceps in Pain & Gain

Critic’s choice

The BFI launches its Gothic season with a Monster Weekend at London’s British Museum, featuring Christopher Lee in Dracula, The Mummy and the peerless 1957 chiller Night of the Demon. Men in tights, girls in masks – Kiss-Ass 2 continues its reign of comic-strip carnage.

Also showing

The Kings  Of Summer (94 mins, 15)

Two 15-year-old schoolboys escape their annoying parents by building a house in the woods, above. Imagine if Superbad had been directed by Terrence Malick and you’ll get some idea of the film’s experimental mix of laugh-out-loud wit and pastoral surrealism. A treat.

We’re The Millers (110 mins, 15)

A small-time drug dealer (Jason Sudeikis) recruits a stripper (Jennifer Aniston) and two teenagers to pose as his family. Feeble comedy.

The Mortal Instruments:  City Of Bones (129 mins, 12A)

A surprisingly violent and convoluted young-adult adaptation for all those Potter and Twilight-starved tweenagers, complete with werewolves, vampires, jargon-heavy mythology, and two swoonsome love interests to  fight over the beautiful heroine  (Lily Collins).

Nicholas Barber