One of the year's best movies has only one special effect: An astonishing performance by a 7-year-old.
That kid is Onata Aprile, and she's at the center of "What Maisie Knew," a searing drama set in modern-day Manhattan, but adapted from a Henry James novel published in 1897. Aprile plays Maisie, a normal kid who observes what happens when her self-centered parents, a rock star (Julianne Moore) and an art dealer (Steve Coogan), go through an acrimonious divorce. Maisie gets shuttled between the two, but ends up mostly being cared for by the people her parents married, a frazzled nanny (Joanna Vanderham) and a laidback bartender (Alexander Skarsgard). Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel let the drama unfold naturally, taking Maisie's wide-eyed view of the shortcomings of the adults in her life.
The big studio movie this weekend is "After Earth," a dimly conceived and weakly executed science-fiction survival story. Will Smith and his son Jaden star, as a military man and his rebellious son, living about 1000 years from now on a human colony until an interstellar trip that ends with their ship crashing on Earth, which has turned wild in the millenium since humans left it. The story, dreamt up by Smith and fleshed out by Gary Whitta ("The Book of Eli") and director M. Night Shyamalan, is dull and drawn out with too much ridiculous mythology and overwrought psychology.