As the 6-year-old title character in

What Maisie Knew

, Onata Aprile projects a shatterproof spirit all the more remarkable for her crushing story.

A superb and keenly observed update of the Henry James novel, Maisie mostly focuses on its young actress' watchful face, with its black-olive eyes and pink-rosebud mouth. Behold the shuttlecock in the unforgiving game of custodial badminton played by self-involved parents.

What does Maisie know? She conveys the intense awareness that her world is spinning off its axis. But she's no precocious movie moppet. She's more like a puppy that understands the tone, if not the heated words, exchanged by its masters. There is much off-camera bickering between Maisie's mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), a rocker past her expiration date, and her father, Beale (Steve Coogan), an art dealer without apparent clients.

The movie's absorbing drama unfolds in that space between what Maisie hears and what she understands. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel skillfully play our emotions. Like Maisie's caregivers, we want to distract the young girl with hugs, crayons and lullabyes. We want to create a safe place for her, away from the increasingly shrill exchanges of Mom and Dad, both more preoccupied with attending to divorce lawyers than attending to Maisie.

There are the facts, and there are our projections that fill in the space between what Maisie hears and what we suspect that she knows.

The facts: Maisie lives in a SoHo loft with her two parents. Then Daddy moves out - and moves in with Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the nanny. Then Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender, moves in with Mom and picks up Maisie from school, introducing himself as her stepfather. And then, when Lincoln colors with Maisie, Mommy gets real angry. And no one remembers the custody schedule, so Maisie spends a lot of time in Uncertaintyland, waiting to be picked up from school. She is often in the care of people she hardly knows.

The projections: Maisie thinks everybody else has a family like hers. And that when her friend comes for an overnight, the friend is so overwhelmed by the lack of boundaries and rules in Susanna's loft that she starts crying and asks to go home. That Maisie's parents variously treat her like the trophy in a popularity contest, the bone in a dogfight, or the job they want to outsource. Only occasionally do they recognize that she is a 6-year-old who needs love and structure. And when they do, they talk about their parental shortcomings rather than listen to her daughterly needs.

The result is a film that deeply engages us on multiple levels. Not only do we wonder what Maisie knows and how she knows it, we want to get this seedling to a place where she won't have to be transplanted every day.

What Maisie Knew ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. With Onata Aprile, Steve Coogan, Julianne Moore, and Alexander Skarsgård. Distributed by Millennium Entertainment

Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.

Parent's guide: R (emotional abuse, profanity, discreet drugs)

Playing at: Ritz BourseEndText

Contact Carrie Rickey at carriedrickey@gmail.com Follow her at www.carrierickey.com.