If Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant 3-D version of “The Great Gatsby” left you wondering about the state of cinematic adaptation these days, hie yourself to “What Maisie Knew,” Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s tone-perfect, modernized re-telling of Henry James’s novel. Boasting just as much imagination and bold revisionism as Luhrmann’s showy but uneven effort, “What Maisie Knew” gives the audience a ground-eye view of its mesmerizing title character, a plucky, charismatic New Yorker who navigates downtown bars and building lobbies with the street savvy of a pro.
That she’s 6 years old only adds to her considerable charm. Played by the young Onata Aprile in a galvanizing performance, Maisie is recognizable to anyone familiar with the tribal elders of Manhattan, with their Eloises, Holdens and other prematurely sophisticated offspring. Practiced in the arts of tipping and self-care, Maisie confidently makes a place for herself in the soaring townhouse she shares with her continually fighting and preoccupied parents: Susanna (Julianne Moore), a slightly aging rock star, and father Beale (Steve Coogan), an art dealer.
Mostly, Maisie hangs out with her nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), a warm, tender presence amidst the jagged edges of Susanna’s and Beale’s monumental self-absorption. As a portrait of a young girl growing up in material wealth and emotional poverty, “What Maisie Knew” often plays like the aforementioned “Gatsby,” as told by Daisy Buchanan’s daughter, Pammy: It’s her fate to be under the care of privileged, attractive, fundamentally careless people. When Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), one of Susanna’s hangers-on, appears more frequently on the scene, he’s careless, too.
But the dynamics among these five characters begin to shift in unexpected ways, a shuffling and re-shuffling that McGehee and Siegel choreograph with dexterity, taste and a keen eye for how production design, costumes and props can convey a world through its material culture. (Maisie is one of those New York kids whose room seems decorated entirely from the MoMA gift shop.)
But primarily, “What Maisie Knew” is a showcase for consistently superb performances that, while utterly grounded in their characters, succeed in keeping viewers off-balance as to who will do what, and when. As the volatile dyad in the middle of Maisie’s alternately indulged and neglected universe, Moore and Coogan embody bohemian narcissism at its most florid, although Coogan’s character admittedly redeems himself in flashes of mordant humor and one shattering moment of self-reflection. As satellite figures who gradually come into closer orbit, Skarsgard and Vanderham finely balance distance and wary sympathy.
As accomplished as the ensemble is, “What Maisie Knew” belongs entirely to Aprile, who keeps a watchful eye on the psycho-drama swirling around her even when she doesn’t seem to quite comprehend it. If she’s preternaturally self-regulating — no blurting, unruly energy of a typical 6-year-old here — she’s also heartbreakingly fragile, a contradiction in her character that becomes more excruciating as the story wears on. What Maisie knows, of course, is the difference between feckless affection and genuine security, and that she’s eminently deserving of the latter. At the risk of committing a spoiler, it’s fair to say that “What Maisie Knew” is a harrowing but finally happy story — if only because it’s the young, wrenchingly vulnerable heroine who manages to save herself.
R. At Angelika Film Center and Landmark’s Bethesda Row. Contains some profanity.