Hard-partying rock star Susanna, played by a firecracker Julianne Moore, divorces Beale (Steve Coogan), a self-obsessed art dealer, each uniting only in the neglect of their six-year-old daughter, Maisie (the remarkable Onata Aprile). Would you believe this film is an update of an 1897 Henry James novel? Believe it. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End), abetted by an astute scriptfrom Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, find something sadly timeless in a child torn apart in a custody battle that no one wins, least of all the child.
It's Maisie's resilience that earns our rooting interest. Aprile never stoops to the tricks of kid actors. Her feelings emerge naturally, notably in her funny and touching scenes with the effortlessly charming Alexander Skarsgård as Lincoln, the studly bartender Susanna marries on a whim. Or it might be spite, since Beale has run off with Margo (Joanna Vanderham), Maisie's pretty nanny. There are times, especially when Lincoln and Margo seem in danger of becoming idealized surrogates, that the film slips into fable. But the filmmakers take care not to sugarcoat the pain inflicted in the name of love. What Henry James knew 116 years ago stays sorrowfully relevant for the here and now.