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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with WHAT MAISIE KNEW and Noah Baumbach's FRANCES HA!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

I walked out of the latest film from directing partners Scott McGehee and David Siegel (THE DEEP END, BEE SEASON) with a true fear in my heart for the future of certain children, in particular, children of divorce. Remember the days when stories about kids of divorce had at least one parent who actually did seem to care about the child's well being, while the other one went off and did something selfish? Well, apparently those days are gone, and what we're left with, according to the powerful WHAT MAISIE KNEW, is that kids are no longer just the collateral damage of divorce; they are now the unwitting weapon of mass destruction that the parents use against each other.

The biggest shock about WHAT MAISIE KNEW isn't that it's an adaptation of a lesser-known novel by Henry James from the 1890s. No, the surprise for me was how little the story had to be changed to make it contemporary. Apparently parents have been bastards for a long time. Who knew? In this film, the parents are middle-aged rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan). As their marriage is falling apart and custody of their daughter Maisie (the incredible newcomer Onata Aprile) becomes an issue, Susanna's career picks up again, while Beale's business starts to crash and he's forced to go overseas to drum up business. And the message poor Maisie gets is parents who are fighting not to take her, but to get rid of her.

The calculated nature of their behavior proves without a shadow of a doubt that both are monsters. He starts up an affair with Maisie's young, beautiful nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), while she takes up with awkward hipster bartender Lincoln (a nice turn by Alexander Skarsgard). Both new relationships are entered into so that the parents will each have someone to take care of Maisie when they're away, making things really uncomfortable right off the bat. The upside is that these new caregivers love this sweet little 6-year-old girl, who somehow never manages to display an ounce of bitterness or anger at her parents. Maisie's resilience may not be a quality all kids in this situation would display, but my god she wears it with a kind of grace and dignity that I've rarely seen in a child performer.

The filmmakers shoot most of the film from Maisie's perspective, down low looking slightly up, so that we can experience her anxiety, sense of abandonment and occasionally fear as she is left behind, forgotten and otherwise neglected. When the adults in her life are not around, the camera stays with her. Maisie is a listener (eavesdropping is a big part of the girl's existence) and a watcher of bad behavior; we assume years of therapy will be a part of her future.

A low-level tension builds as the film goes on because we keep expecting something horrible to happen to Maisie, but instead something remarkable happens in the final act that almost seems fantastical and too good to be true. But that certainly doesn't make it any less powerful or emotional.

WHAT MAISIE KNEW is a largely quiet film, punctuated by near-violent episodes of arguing and general anger. Both parents seem willing to fight to the death for custody and to get the upper hand, but these battles and subsequent victories are meaningless because they don't actually care about the prize; they care more about winning. The film is sometimes tough to watch, but it feels essential that we do. This is a film about the price of selfishness, and you will not come out unscathed or not recognizing some aspect of these characters. What a great experience.

I think I can make this easy for you. Whether you enjoy the latest and perhaps most accessible film directed by Noah Baumbach, FRANCES HA, comes down to one thing—whether or not you find its star (and co-writer with Baumbach) Greta Gerwig in any way charming or compelling. Many people don't, and I get that; I just don't happen to agree. Since her early days in mumblecore, I've always found her to be an engaging force, often in films filled with the opposite of that. And I say that not just because she will lose her clothes at the drop of a hat. The best way I can describe it is that she feels like someone you know in your life, even if you don't know anyone like her. I guess the better way to say that is, she feels like someone you could know.

She can be brash and declarative in her delivery, but I've also seen her to reserved and uncertain. However she's playing a part in films like HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, BAGHEAD, GREENBERG (her first film with Baumbach), TO ROME WITH LOVE, DAMELS IN DISTRESS—hell, even in the ARTHUR remake—there's always a hint (or more than a hint) of uncertainty and vulnerability mixed in with an often unearned confidence. In ways that have nothing to do with the way she dresses or looks, Gerwig reminds me of a young Diane Keaton—abrasive sometimes as a performer but giving us something and highly watchable.

In FRANCES HA, Gerwig plays a 27-year-old dancer named Frances who lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting), and if the film is about anything in particular, it's about their tumultuous relationship. It's clear these two women are more in love (non-sexually, I think) with each other than they are with any of the men that they date, and when the film is about their friendship, it's remarkable. After a bit of a falling out, Sophie leaves and Frances can't afford their apartment alone, so she begins a series of apartment hops between friends' couches, or sharing a room with two or three guys. Her position at the dance studio is also tenuous; the director has decided not to use her in a performance for the coming season, but when she's offered a desk job, she pretends that she has other offers out there and quits.

Frances is a person who floats. She goes from one living arrangement to another, one job to another, one ill-funded adventure to another. In case you hadn't figured it out, Frances Ha is more character study than plot-driven feature. There's no denying that this feels remarkably similar to what Lena Dunham is doing with "Girls" (especially when Adam Driver shows up as one of Frances' dates), but Baumbach (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING) is taking a radically different approach to the idea that 20-somethings are still "figuring it out." Her dreams are far more defined; she just can't find anyone to help her make them come true, but she refuses to lose hope even when reality slaps her in the face.

On a purely aesthetic level, FRANCES HA is shot in rich black and white, and combined with the largely French New Wave score, it feels like something far more European than anything Baumbach has done before. Of course, there are also wonderful touches like Frances running through the streets of New York (to look for an ATM) while David Bowie's "Modern Love" plays for our enjoyment. Watching Frances go through her life, I had two conflicting thoughts racing through my head. I was envious of her freedom and her abundance of optimism; and I would never want to change places with her. This is a strangely joyful work, but I have no idea where Frances is going to land, and that made me sad. It takes a fair amount of great writing and acting to make me care about what happens to a character after the movie is done.

-- Steve Prokopy
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