Most of us have no idea of how observant and sensitive children are to what we say and do in their presence. Parents may want to think of their sons and daughters as little memory banks that soak up all the events and conversations in their lives and keep them for future reference. If parents shout and yell at each other, toxic impressions go into the memory bank. If parents constantly profess to love their children but hardly ever spend time with them, memories of disappointment and sadness are stored forever.

These deeply troubling aspects of parenting lie at the foundation of What Maisie Knew, a mesmerizing screen adaptation that updates the 1897 novel by Henry James to the contemporary scene. Here is a gripping portrait of a six-year-old girl who is shamefully treated and emotionally abused by her selfish parents. They are far more interested in the advancement of their careers than they are in nurturing their adorable and patient daughter.

Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a rock musician with a nasty temper who is in the process of divorcing her husband Beale (Steve Coogan), an art dealer who is constantly on the road. Although she professes that Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the most important person in her life, she has let her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) become the little girl's major source of love and attention. After a grueling custody battle, Maisie is shuttled back and forth between Manhattan apartments. She is often stranded at school when her father or mother forgets to pick her up. They use their daughter as a weapon against each other. Susanne then marries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a bartender, and Beale weds Margo.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel coax an astonishing performance out of Onata Aprile as the sensitive, observant, and well-mannered Maisie whose resilience in dealing with her narcissistic parents is a wonder to behold. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this well-paced drama is the tender love that blooms between this little girl and Lincoln, her stepfather. He is a playful soul whose real presence in Maisie's life enables her to carry on in the face of the continuing slights of her birth parents.

What Maisie Knew proves that there is a spiritual quality to parenting that involves mindfulness and the kind of nurturing love that is gentle and lasting.