|Margaret Qualley, Maid|
Set in Washington State - although filmed in Canada – this 10-part adaptation of Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, may be the year’s biggest surprise.
It opens as Alex (Margaret Qualley) and her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) do a night-time runner from their trailer park home.
They are escaping Alex’s husband, the “emotionally abusive” bartender Sean (Nick Robinson). After sleeping in their car and being betrayed by well-meaning friends, Alex and Maddy’s next stop in their spiral towards poverty and welfare support is a domestic violence shelter.
If this is starting to sound like a piece of miserable social realism brilliantly directed by Ken Loach…well, it isn’t.
Alex doesn’t believe she should qualify for such support, that emotional abuse is less deserving than physical abuse. It’s one of many wrong-foot moments for the audience as Maid takes you to places you have seldom seen.
Like the domestic violence shelter run by the wonderful Denise (BJ Harrison) with its codes of protection and its abused mothers standing in clumps on the roadside, their heads down over the mobile phones they can only use blocks away from the shelter to stop their abusers tracing their location.
The issues raised in Maid are serious enough – a broken welfare system with Catch-22 demands; court appearances for custody where the verbal legalese makes proceedings incomprehensible; half-way houses; grinding cleaning work where you pay for your own cleaning products; and endemic family dysfunction – but Maid’s greatest quality and its blessing are a full range of empathetic, three-dimensional characters who humanize the world they inhabit.
Alex’s artistic mother Paula (played by Qualley’s real-life mother Andie MacDowell) is undiagnosed bi-polar and as well-meaning as she is, clearly needs therapeutic help. Alex feels she’s been caring for her mother since she was six-years-old. Paula, too, lives in a trailer with her gambling boyfriend Basil, whom Alex continually accuses of having a fake Australian accent.
Apart from his violence, Sean has alcohol problems, but instead of myopic denial he is forcefully self-aware of his issues and how he needs to prove himself to win Alex back. His alcoholism, however, is shared with Alex’s father Hank (Billy Burke), a former drink-abuser but now a born-again Christian. They bond at AA meetings and form a double-whammy for Alex who hates her father even more than her estranged husband.
Alex cleans a mansion for Regina (Anika Noni Rose), a lawyer whose husband leaves her just as she’s about to adopt a surrogate child – a child she never wanted in the first place and one she has no idea how to raise. As their strange relationship warms, we wonder just who is worse off here – single mum Alex in her struggling poverty or Regina, whose life and mind is disintegrating among the artifices of her opulence.
Despite the great supporting characters, the canvas belongs to Alex, and here Margaret Qualley is fully in command of her performance. An intelligent woman who copes admirably most of the time, Alex still makes many believable mistakes. It’s a lived-in performance from Qualley, packed with nuanced authenticity and eye-movement acting that conveys far more than the written dialogue.
Although it may be hard to believe – given the subject matter – it also has great humour.
A privilege to watch…despite some awful songs on the soundtrack.