Review: 'Maid' takes hard look at cycles of abuse, income inequality

Netflix series takes a hard look at uncomfortable truths.

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

“Maid” deals with dirty truths too many of us want to ignore.

Alex (Margaret Qualley) is 25, has a 2-year-old daughter named Maddie (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), and lives in a trailer in Washington state with Sean (Nick Robinson), her boyfriend. She doesn’t work, Sean tends bar and drinks too much, often becoming abusive. One night he goes too far and Alex bolts with Maddie.

Rylea Nevaeh Whittet and Margaret Qualley in "Maid."

She and Maddie essentially become homeless. Alex turns to social services and immediately discovers a byzantine world of contradictory rules and demands. First and foremost, to qualify for most assistance she needs a job. So she’s pointed to a maid service. Completely broke, she starts cleaning the houses of rich people.

What about family? She’s estranged from her long-absent recovering alcoholic father (Billy Burke). And her mother (Andie MacDowell, Qualley’s real life mother) is a bipolar artist living at a campground and pretty much the most irresponsible person imaginable.

So Maddie ends up living at a safe house for domestic abuse survivors and cleaning houses. She once dreamed of going to college and being a writer. Now she’s dealing with toilets and millionaires and finding both vile.

“Maid” is an exploration of the way traumas get passed on through generations, of the way cycles of abuse and addiction mix and, most importantly, of the raging income inequality that is poisoning society. 

It’s pretty far from breezy watching, but Qualley (“The Leftovers,” “Fosse/Verdon,” “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”) is absolutely transfixing — innocent while hardened, alternately broken and strong, drowning in a system that doesn’t much care. And MacDowell is on fire as her wild-eyed mother, eternally deluding herself.

More than 500,000 people are homeless in America. More than 900,000 cases of domestic abuse are reported every year. A recent study says one in eight Americans is an alcoholic and drug overdoses are through the roof. Meanwhile billionaires keep amassing wealth at an obscene pace.

“Maid” shines a warm, personal light on all this while telling a story that’s enlightening and entertaining. It’s never really heavy-handed but it can be exhausting. It should be.

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.