The 56th annual San Francisco International Film Festival kicked off last night at the Castro Theater, screening What Maisie Knew to a packed house of well-coiffed cinephiles clamoring for buttered popcorn and a plush seat beneath the silver screen.
As dusk crept along the streets of the Castro, so, too, did bevies of stilleto-ed blondes and blazer-ed critics; all types of culture hounds gathered to celebrate on the makeshift red carpet outside the theater.
By 6:45 (the movie didn't start until 7:12) the Castro was a pleasant madhouse; staff darted about with clipboards, the candy counter churned out its confections and the throng of movie-goers already seated clapped along with the gilded organ.
Finally, the lights fell, the organ slid (along with its performer) into the stage and the festivities began. New executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, Ted Hope, who just took over in September 2012, greeted the audience with humble excitement. Hope reminded us the SFFF is the longest-running film festival in the Americas and that San Francisco represents a uniquely devoted, bright and diverse audience; without its viewers, the festival would be stripped of its momentum, he said.
Rachel Rosen, director of programming for the San Francisco Film Society then took the stage. "Movies remind us to live in the present," she said. "And there's no place I'd rather be than introducing this film for this film festival."
Scott McGehee and David Siegel -- co-directors of What Maisie Saw -- also made an impassioned appearance, recalling days of cutting their film teeth at the Castro. "It's so exciting to be here," said Siegel. "And I'm quite nervous. So much has changed. The Giants have won the World Series ... twice, and there are married people in the Castro!" The crowd clapped and threw in a few cat-calls.
McGehee echoed Siegel's sentiments explaining the SFFF has shown its films before, but serving as the opening act was a "very special honor." Pint-size beauty and budding actress, Onata Aprile who plays Maisie, joined them on stage with a sparkling back scarf that hung to her knees, waving demurely to the audience.
What Maisie Knew, co-written by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne, is a loose adaptation of a 1897 Henry James novel; the harrowing tale of family dysfunction, bitter divorce, and the child caught in the cross-fire, transcends its original vision. Set in modern day Manhattan, Julianne Moore plays an aging, narcissistic rock star, all eye-shadow smoosh and lank-haired sex appeal.
Maisie's father is a bumbling English art dealer named Beale, played by Steve Coogan. The heyday of their previous romance is never depicted, rather the audience only sees their relationship's final unraveling amid a sprawling loft-like apartment clad in pitch-perfect bohemian ephemera. Their fights are not violent but virulent, chock-full of angry accusations, lock-outs, slammed doors, and copious f-bombs.
The lynchpin and doe-eyed centerpiece of their parental failings is of course Maisie, whose self-possession, intelligence, and fragility radiate from her knobby knees to her doleful looks across the expanse of the city and the increasing savagery of her parents' custody battle.
Amid meditative shots of childlike perspective -- a tangled kite on a telephone wire, the billowing sails of tiny ships on Conservatory Water in Central Park -- a strange love story is also brewing.
Maisie's nanny (Margo) played by a charmingly nymph-like Scot, Joanna Vanderham, ends up marrying ne'er-do-well Beale to advance his court possession of Maisie. She soon realizes she has become the ultimate pawn. Meanwhile, Susanna is stirring her own sinister brew, and gets hitched to an equally beguiling Alexander Skarsgård, who plays Lincoln, a gorgeous bartender with a heart of gold.
As Maisie's parents become increasingly erratic, consumed by their careers and staggering self-indulgence, a makeshift family begins to form in their riotous wake; not surprisingly the nanny and the bartender collapse into each others arms with Maisie set firmly in their messy, but loving cross-hairs.
What Maisie knew is a rather saccharine but salient journey, one that takes aim at our negligent and stunted society, eager to forgo family for fame and the celebration of "I" as the endemic center of our purpose.
That's all we'll tell you -- no spoiler alerts, but rest assured, things end in tumult, but buoyantly; thankfully, no tears will be shed.
Following the film, which was met with thunderous applause as the credits rolled, there was a post-film party at Temple nightclub in SOMA, where three floors of music, bars, and delectable treats filled the Howard Street hot-spot.
Upstairs, amid a starkly lit, modern art show - filled with melted wax sculptures and tangled silk ribbons - people snacked on vegan snacks and Cabot cheese. The real piece de resistance however was a make your own flip book station. Revelers relinquished their libations only to don absurd costumes (sequined bow-tie or viking helmet anyone?) and strut their strange stuff for a seven-second video that was soon turned to a tiny book of their antics.
But most importantly opening night of the SFFF heralded the films to come; diverse, creative, provocative and genre-bending. Gird your loins, this year's festival is going to be a bumpy, beautiful ride.