This film starts off innocently enough with a lullaby and ends with a fairy tale but the plot that unfolds in between is anything but smooth and harmonious. The set up is of an acting-out divorcing couple raising their six-year-old only child Maisie who prematurely matures as her parenting dilutes with the adult's escalating conflict.
The movie opens with Maisie's parents fighting in the background while she is required to find money in the house to pay the pizza man for her dinner alone with the nanny. You know Maisie is about to encounter hardship and become a kind of sacrificial lamb when holding her best friend Zoe's hand, she turns and over her shoulder is fascinated with a kite caught in the trees.
This is the same Zoe who can't rest peacefully at night in Maisie's home. What should have gone well went awry. Remember the sleep-over is highly desired, sought out and coveted among social girls this age. Normalcy is no longer Maisie's option.
The interrupted sleep over is a blow to Maisie, signaling something is wrong her family. Her parents teeter along the edge of the consequences from neglectful lizard parenting. They equally reveal their respective true lizard colors, one parent not worse than the other. They both abandoned Maisie, just differently but the message is the same: Maisie, you're on your own. The separation and divorce amplifies and accentuates what has been going haywire in the family, presumably for some time.
The character Zoe is an adopted Chinese daughter of white helicopter parents who are suspicious from the get go, at the drop off and for good reason. We can imagine Zoe's procedural memory has been encoded with the experience of deprivation but she is willing to along because Maisie is so terrific.
Zoe though, can never forget. She is hard-wired to sniff out the danger of deprivation because of her early childhood experience as an orphan infant. This makes her self-regulation system particularly sensitive to the wobble of substandard care.
Zoe goes on high alert and panics because she rightfully detects danger in Maisie's home. Now that Zoe knows the positive difference nurturing, empathic and attuned parenting provides, she's savvy enough to steer clear of the trouble Maisie's environment offers.
Maisie is subject to what I call ambivalent parenting. Who knows what wounded qualities lead her parents to find each other. And though she is loved by them, she is clearly not their priority or property. This is Maisie's marinade. In Yiddish it's called 'from hunger.' One can be wealthy and suffer from it too.
What starts out as the wild abandonment of fun and games at the sleepover turns strange and lascivious. That this happened on mother's watch is equally matched by other scenes in which the father leads with abandoning behaviors. It's completely reasonable that healthy Zoe demands to go home in the wee hours of the night.
Later in the movie the ease with which Maisie can so easily hang with her former nanny/new step-mother and bartender/mother's new paramour, after father has dropped her off because he had a plane to catch is a sign she's overly self-sufficient out of sheer necessity. For Maisie, it's not unhealthy to blend so easily with her surrogate family. Maisie has habituated to the diluted parenting to which she has become accustomed. Anything else would be wrong and detrimental to her.
Maisie has had to adjust and accommodate over time. She is what we call resilient, a catch word today but it can't be denied. We root for Maisie. She is the come-back kid. These potential strikes to Maisie's cohesive sense of self are not to prevail. Like Zoe, Maisie will not be lost in the shuffle. At least for now she will choose what feels whole over broken.
At least for now Maisie can bend without breaking. Adolescence will be the real test. There's plenty of material here for a sequel. Maisie can ride out the twist her life has taken or it will wipe her out. A century ago author Henry James described our six-year-old protagonist Maisie lost in the shuffle of her parent's traumatic separation as a tennis ball bouncing from racket to racket. Sad to say, not much has changed in the world of traumatic separations, divorces and child custody cases.