“Maid” begins just after the last straw has been broken. Alex, a 25-year-old aspiring writer living north of Seattle, lies awake watching the man who just ended an argument with her by punching a hole in a wall. When she’s sure he’s asleep, she gathers their 2-year-old daughter, Maddy, and tiptoes out of the mobile home they share. She and Maddy are about to be homeless for the first time, but not the last.
Across the 10 roughly hourlong episodes of “Maid,” premiering Friday on Netflix, Alex (Margaret Qualley) and Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) undertake a bitter, circular, hugely frustrating journey through the precincts of poverty. They move in and out of domestic violence shelters, halfway houses, friends’ and relatives’ homes and, for a particularly dismal spell, back into the trailer. A counter pops up onscreen with a running tally of Alex’s diminishing funds when she’s pumping gas or making agonizing purchasing decisions in a convenience store.
And “Maid” itself can be a frustrating experience, sometimes moving and convincing, sometimes scattered and trite. It was adapted from Stephanie Land’s memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive” by Molly Smith Metzler, a writer and producer whose credits include “Orange Is the New Black” and “Shameless.”
It’s no surprise that Land’s modest, straightforward book, with its nuts-and-bolts account of the housecleaning work she took on to support herself and her daughter, has been radically transformed — only the broadest outlines of her story, along with the usual smattering of arresting or convenient details, have been retained. (Even some of those details have changed: the Oreck vacuum that Land hauled to her cleaning gigs is, in Alex’s hands, a Dyson.)
It’s too bad, though, that the expansions on Land’s tale tend toward clichéd story lines involving mental illness, alcoholism and recovery — worthwhile and sometimes well-made but utterly familiar. The material dealing directly with domestic violence is also more well meaning than dramatic. It may move you, but it won’t surprise you.
Slightly lost, or diminished, in the reimagining is the central place of housecleaning itself, and the critique of the class and economic structures that can put a working single mother in a nearly inescapable box. It’s not that the physical toll and meager payoff of Alex’s work, or her observations about the lives and houses of her clients, don’t get screen time. But they’re not as central as they could be — they tend to be there to embellish or illustrate other, more melodramatic story lines. You don’t get the feeling that Metzler or her fellow executive producer John Wells (“The West Wing,” among others) were that engaged by the maid angle, or spent much time thinking about how to incorporate it organically into a standard television drama plot.
In “Maid,” that plot is built around two opposed sets of characters, divided by gender. On the male side are Maddy’s father, Sean (Nick Robinson), and grandfather, Hank (Billy Burke), both with addiction and anger issues, whose violence has had the largest role in derailing Alex’s life.
On the female side are Alex’s mother, Paula (Andie MacDowell, Qualley’s mother), a bipolar free spirit and narcissist who is an enormous burden on Alex, along with two women who throw out life lines: Denise (BJ Harrison), the manager of a domestic violence shelter, and Regina (Anika Noni Rose), a testy, tightly wound lawyer whose house Alex cleans.
These talented performers do their best with parts that feel like writers’ room composites. MacDowell can’t do much with Paula, whose inappropriateness and hurtfulness take on cartoonish dimensions. Rose, on the other hand, makes something sharp and touching out of Regina’s insecurities, even in a dreadful scene in which she unburdens herself to Alex over chardonnay and Thanksgiving pies.
If you stick with “Maid,” though, it will be because of Qualley, who is onscreen virtually every minute. (She’s helped tremendously by the charming Whittet as Maddy.) “Maid” is a test of endurance for both character and actress, and Qualley’s businesslike, warily tight-lipped performance (quite different from her provocative Pussycat in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”) is a good match for the proud, sometimes abrasive, reflexively suspicious Alex.
Wells, who directed four episodes, and the rest of the crew, including the cinematographers Quyen Tran, Guy Godfree and Vincent de Paula, give “Maid” a burnished, engaging look, helped by the Washington and British Columbia locations. Beyond that, the mini-series doesn’t exactly have a style — there are elements of wry comedy, of social-problem bleakness and of teenage-drama dreaminess, along with recurring touches of magical realism that illustrate Alex’s writerly imagination (such as when, in a very low moment in the trailer, she literally sinks into a couch).
But maybe that is a style: the Netflix method, for when you’ve committed 10 episodes to what would have made a good two-hour movie.
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