The daughter of a power-driven English art dealer (Steve Coogan) and a successful, self-motivated musician (Julianne Moore), quiet and observant Maisie is the centre of the drama and the focal point of the film. As her parents buy extravagant gifts and acquire trophy spouses to point score, Maisie is shifted from one gorgeous toy-filled prison apartment to the next, witnessing every blazing row, rock star party and vitriolic court appearance along the way.
Onata Aprile as Maisie appears in almost every frame, her silent watchfulness easily as powerful as the raised decibels of her established co-stars. She is completely believable as clearly the strongest character on screen. The power of her performance belies her tiny, frail frame, with no abused-movie-child self-pity or oversensitivity, and just a single heart-breaking tear. Moore puts in an excellent turn as Maisie's loudly irrational mother, Susanna, unafraid to portray a character with an unattractive lack of remorse or redemption. Convincing support is provided by Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham as the exploited shotgun stepparents, and Coogan is predictably dislikeable as money-over-Maisie Dad.
Every display of negligence is made more distressing only by its frequency, all seen from the film's still and sunny, three-foot-nothing vantage point. Maisie's intrigued smile at a trapped kite in a power line, and simple joy from riding her bike are juxtaposed against the audiences view of a girl with suffocated potential, turning in a tightening gyre on a tiny tower block balcony.
Much needed respite and hope is found in the unlikely potential parental options of her two young step-parents. The ending is undoubtedly Hollywoodised from James's original and it would have been refreshing to see something a little closer to the more cynical source material, but it doesn't come off as too slushy either. Director duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel's delicate handling of difficult material is outshone only by Aprile. Watch out for that little one in future.