Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What Vance Knew: Next to nothing

I saw the title of the movie What Maisie Knew a couple months ago when it was playing at the Landmark Theater on Pico back in LA. To the extent that I considered it at all, I considered it to be some kind of indie thriller in which a deaf-mute girl had witnessed a murder, and investigators would have to work overtime to figure out what she had seen. I guess a movie like that might be called What Maisie Saw, but I digress.

In other words, I had no idea it was a) based on a Henry James novel from 1897; b) about the effect on a six-year-old girl of a separation between a rock star (Julianne Moore) and an art dealer (Steve Coogan), her parents; c) about to become one of my favorite films of the year.

I've written before about how great it can be to go into a movie knowing nothing about it. What Maisie Knew may be the most pleasure I've gained from a movie I was most indifferent about seeing.

See, the local arthouse theater (30-minute walk) has discount prices on Mondays. That's $6 for movies before 4 p.m. on Monday, whereas the standard price for all other times is a whopping $19. "The cinema has gotten expensive," the ticket clerk admitted to me when I expressed shock that there was no matinee price, before forking over $19 for Beyond the Hills on a Tuesday afternoon at 12:20 a few weeks back. "But we do have special prices on Mondays."

Special indeed. I've never seen such a discrepancy between the regular price and the discount price at a movie theater. In the U.S., usually it's maybe $12.75 for the regular price and $9 for the matinee. At this theater, the regular asking price is one of the highest I've ever seen, and the discount price one of the lowest.

Then and there I decided to see a movie before 4 on Monday, every Monday. It's one of the three days my son is in preschool, so I can easily afford to do it. In fact, I almost can't afford not to do it. Given how expensive everything else is in Melbourne -- I haven't had sticker shock like this since I lived back in New York -- spending $6 to be at a movie for two hours is like saving me from spending twice that on something else. It's like the time I was stranded in Vegas an extra day (the fifth day I was there), and went to see Pay It Forward because I knew I could lose no more than $10 during those two hours.

Last week's Monday movie was easy. I'd been excited to see the new documentary about J.D. Salinger, and it had just opened the Thursday before. (Movies do that here, open on Thursdays.) So catching the first showing of Salinger was a no-brainer.

This past week, I had more of a challenge. I wanted to see something playing early, which limited me to three movies that I hadn't seen/had any inkling to see. The first was Blue Jasmine, but I just wasn't feeling it. The second was Mood Indigo, the new Michel Gondry movie, which apparently doesn't even have a U.S. release date lined up. That detail gave me pause. Besides, the What Maisie Knew start time lined up better, and I liked not knowing anything about it. That can sometimes steer me away from a movie, but it was a draw in this case.

Well, I loved it.

It was immediately clear that directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee had just the right touch in telling an adult story essentially from the perspective of a child. They knew how to make this affecting material touching without being cloying, mature rather than manipulative.


How about she?

What Maisie Knew is filled with very good to great performances, from the always reliable Moore to the increasingly sophisticated dramatist Coogan, from the up-and-comer who's been eluding me (Alexander Sarsgard) to the fresh young face who may just become an up-and-comer (Joanna Vanderham).

But neither Moore nor Vanderham is the "she" I'm talking about.

That she is a young actress named Onata Aprile, who gives quite simply the most naturalistic performance I've seen from a child actor. We're always inclined toward exaggeration when raving about something we love, and sure, Aprile may not be the best performance from a child actor that I've ever seen. But in the post-movie glow that's still clutching me a day later, she sure feels like it.

To know what I'm talking about you really have to see the movie, but it's downright preternatural. Almost all of Aprile's performance is a reaction; she never has to say more than about a sentence at a time. But this is what makes her performance all the more remarkable. The performance -- nay, the whole movie -- relies on the subtle changes in her facial expressions to gain whatever power it has. And since What Maisie Knew has a lot of power, it means Aprile absolutely mastered what was required of her. I doubt she will get an acting nomination at this year's Oscars, simply because What Maisie Knew has ended up being a pretty small movie despite its glowing reviews. She deserves it, though.

I won't go on at length about the languid cinematography, the wrenching plot details or the movie's many glorious tonal grace notes. Those should be for you to discover.

It's too late for you, because if you've read this, you already know a lot more than I did going in.

If that's what it takes for you to see this movie -- to know a little more about What Maisie Knew -- then I'm willing to make the sacrifice. 

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