Double feature: “What Maisie Knew” and “About a Boy” are two low-key literary adaptations examining what, and how, two only children understand and absorb upheaval in their domestic lives. (Seasonally appropriate bonus points to “About a Boy” for easing viewers into the holiday season.)
Maisie, the presumptive heroine of the former film, is presented as the passive ground upon which her parent’s battles are waged. She drifts between caretakers like a windblown leaf, reacting subtly, unobtrusively (if at all). How much does she notice? Is she enigmatic? Blank? Traumatized? Hard to tell.
“About a Boy”‘s Marcus is less of a cipher. His voiceovers grant us direct access to his simultaneously naive and acute processing of events. He is also more proactive than Maisie, trying to influence the elements of, and primary actors in, the world around him.
The differences between these two characters can be partly explained by gender, or by age, but also by evolving conceptions of childhood over time. Maisie, a tiny 1st-grader in the film, is actually a 117-year old character with origins in a world of children seen but unheard. Marcus is a product of the 1990s, when popular culture had a healthy showing of precocious and/or sassy children.
Differences aside, both films end up showing the promise of unconventional families – chosen friends, maintained by affection rather than obligation or blood ties.
For a marathon: Contrast the romantic breakup(s) in “What Maisie Knew” with that in “Scenes from a Marriage,” which almost never shows the affected children at all, and completely sidesteps the impact their domestic dissolution has on them.
If you wish the powerhouse role of Ellie got more screen-time in “About a Boy,” check out “We Are the Best!” for an imaginative transposition of her character to 1980s Stockholm, and for further illustration of the power of self-reliance and friendships as family supplements.
(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “neon.mamacita” and “Moritz*” at Flickr)