What Maisie Knew

Opens Friday (see times below)

Carefully written and beautifully photographed, the child custody drama What Maisie Knew is an undeniably moving film with strong performances from everyone involved.

It’s also extremely hard to watch, and I don’t know that I would recommend it. To parents, anyway. Maisie takes the idea that putting a child in peril is inherently dramatic, then stretches that notion to its breaking point.

Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan play Susanna and Beale, parents of the bright and good-hearted 6-year-old girl Maisie (Onata Aprile). Susanna is an aging rock star, Beale a British art dealer. They live in a high-end Manhattan apartment building, when they’re not jetting around for the demanding business of Art. The film opens with Beale and Susanna in the final, terminal stages of splitting up and Maisie is witness to fights of astonishing emotional brutality. As played by the still, sad-eyed Oprile, Maisie doesn’t react. She just absorbs it all.

Events progress and the custody battle grows bitter. Susanna changes the locks. Beale attempts to steal Maisie away from her grade school class. When Beale marries the family’s live-in nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), Susanna fires back by marrying himbo bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard). Poor Maisie is batted around between households and left entirely abandoned on more than one occasion.

Standard operating procedure for a divorce drama, maybe, but this film is relentless. The entire first hour is scene after brutal scene of Beale and Susanna wielding Maisie as a weapon between them — when they remember she’s there at all. The 6-year-old spends time where 6-year-olds ought not be: At smoke-filled parties, in lonely bars, on cramped tour coaches and in strangers’ homes.

It’s wrenching, and the story threatens constantly to plunge into emotionally manipulative melodrama. But directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel keep from going over the edge by telling the story from right behind Maisie’s eyes. The camera lingers at curious heights and vantages, and observes carefully selected moments. Maisie sees more than the adults know. She’s desperate for anyone solid to hold on to, and she navigates as best she can.

Lincoln and Margo, the new spouses, come into the story just as we (and Maisie) need them most. They’re not perfect people, but they’re sane and decent. The film offers up at least one moment of pure cinematic catharsis when Lincoln comes directly to Maisie’s defense. “You don’t deserve her,” he tells Susanna, speaking directly for the audience. Whew. That needed to be said.

The film is an adaptation of the novel by Henry James, with many liberties taken by screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. Maisie may flirt with melodrama, but it’s not exploitative and the filmmakers have their reasons for putting Maisie through the wringer as they do. The film has something to say about family and children in this modern life. Watch how and when the characters use their cell phones. It’s all of a piece, and the story ends well, with a certain rounded elegance.

But it sure is hard on the stomach. I admired What Maisie Knew, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it.