The 6th Charleston International Film Festival started last night, so I headed to the Sottile for their opening night reception. The CIFF had shut down George Street for the party, and the film-loving crowd milled around outdoors, snacking on bite-sized chocolate cream pies and fruit-and-veggie kebabs.

The big draw of the event was the surprise feature film screening — all attendees had been told was that it was a “modern adaptation of a novel from the late 1800s” that was “cumulatively heartrending.” I tried to get as emotionally prepared as I could, considering that I didn’t know what exact type of heartrending was about to take place, but as it turns out, there’s pretty much no way I could have gotten ready for the story. More on that soon.

The screening began with the short A House A Home, a beautiful imagining of love in the afterlife. It got a warm response from the enthusiastic crowd. And then Julianne Moore was on the screen, in the opening scene of what turned out to be the drama What Maisie Knew. The film is an adaptation of the Henry James novel of the same name, and follows Maisie, a five- or six-year-old girl (her exact age is never mentioned but she’s heartbreakingly young) through the divorce and custody battle of her selfish, terrible parents.

And I do mean terrible. The mother, Moore, is a has-been rock star who provides Maisie (the six-year-old Onata Aprile) with a chaotic, unpredictable home life punctuated by screamingly loud rock music and drugged-out parties. Maisie’s father, who is admittedly more stable but no less selfish, is a British businessman who marries Maisie’s nanny before abandoning both her and Maisie when he (presumably) decides to pre-empt his own deportation by returning to England.

It’s an exceptional film in many ways, perhaps most notably in its ability to focus on such a young protagonist for its entire duration. What Maisie Knew also seemed to strike a deep chord with the entire audience (including myself), who couldn’t help but exclaim when one of Maisie’s parents did something completely abhorrent. And that happened about every five minutes or so.

It’s a film I’d definitely recommend — but be prepared to experience moral and emotional outrage for about 90 minutes.

CIFF certainly picked a doozy to open this year’s festivities. I’m looking forward to the rest of the offerings. Next stop, this afternoon’s shorts program!