AN OFFBEAT child's-eye view of divorce enlivens a depressingly familiar scenario in "What Maisie Knew."
The title may ring a bell - it belongs to a Henry James short story on the same subject, updated here with a contemporary characters. Julianne Moore is an unraveling rock singer in a disintegrating marriage to a businessman (Steve Coogan) - the only bond they have remaining is their destructive contempt for each other.
"Maisie" is often scaldingly bitter - Moore and Coogan allow their characters' destructive hatred to play out without much modulation - and it's a little scary.
Especially as we're watching it from the point of view of the little girl (Onata Aprile) between them. That's often literally true - the camera lives with her about three feet off the ground, and often pretends, as little Maisie does, to be interested in her tea party while the parents have howling battles in another room.
It's an interesting performance by this tiny actress, who tips us that she knows what's going on between her parents, but keeps the reality of it at bay with her child's gift for play, or denial, or some combination of both.
Her emotional survival skills adapt as the couple splits, the father acquires a girlfriend, and the mother strikes back by shanghai-ing the first tall, blond bartender (Alexander Skarsgard) she can find.
It's an appalling race to the behavioral bottom, and often painful to watch. And yet the movie isn't pointlessly excruciating. Moore manages to craft a redemptive moment for her awful character in her final desperate moment on screen.
And if the parents are blind to Maisie's welfare, others are not, and it plays out in a way that gives the movie surprising emotional resonance.