NEARLY EVERY young child has hidden in doorways, crept downstairs, and lain awake in bed at night, listening to the hushed grownup voices he is not meant to hear. These glimpses into the adult world often give the child far greater insight than his parents realize. In the opening scenes of an enchanting new Australian film, Careful He Might Hear You, a wide-eyed six-year-old boy lies awake as his anxious parents discuss his fate and admonish each other for speaking too loudly, afraid they will let him hear too much. This preoccupation with sheltering the boy from life's cruel realities forms a central theme of the story of a bitter custody feud between two adoptive mothers, who want the boy for entirely different reasons.
Told mostly from the boy's point of view, Careful is a remarkably a curate and insightful portrait of a child torn between manipulative adults Although too young to understand the full implications of their selfishness and occasional perversity. "PS" so named by his bohemian mother "as a postscript to my ridiculous life" is nevertheless aware of far more than they think.
Nicholas Gledhill as PS gives one of the finest performances by a child actor images and not one in the mold of the Spielberg cute American kid. Reminiscent of Alexander in Bergman's Funny and Alexander. Gledhill's PS is hardly a postscript. He not only captures the hearts of all the adults but is the most complete character in the story, his enormous gray blue eyes take in everything with a quiet appraisal and his innocently infantile comments reveal wisdom beyond his years.
PS-is the prize in a bitter contest between Lila (Robyn Nevin) and Vanessa (Wendy Hughes) two of the four sisters who remain after the death of Sinden. PS's mother Lila and her working class husband George have been raising PS in a run-down area of Sydney for six years when glittery, pertained Vanessa arrives on a ship from England eager to sweep him up and make a proper English gentleman of him Lila and George cannot fight her because she is moneyed and can offer the child far more than they. The compromise they work out-that PS will live withing class husband George have been raising Vanessa during the week and see his "real" parents on weekends--leaves the boy torn almost to the point of schizophrenia between two opposing modes of existence. The irony, of course, is that by asking him to make unfair choices, the adults force poor PS to accept far more responsibility than they would by letting him overhear them.
Vanessa, we learn, has more in mind than just winning PS. It seems the boy's rakish father, a handsome, drunken gold digger who's quite the ladies' man, had an affair with Vanessa years ago. By getting his son, she hopes to lure him back. But Logan, hardly the fatherly type, breezes into town only long enough to tie one on and perhaps sign a new set of papers, beseeched by both sisters for sole guardianship rights to his son.
The triangle formed by the three adults is a fascinating one While Logan is surprised and touched to meet his son, he is unable to deal with the concept of fatherhood. For her part, the frigid and calculating Vanessa knows little about mothering: from the first, she treats the boy like an adult, to the dismay of Lila and George, who want only to protect him. Negotiating with them early in the film for the rights to PS Vanessa asks the boy to leave the room. "Why?" he asks, Lila begins. "So we can discuss the lovely surprise," but Vanessa cuts her off "Because I asked you to very nicely," she answers simply. PS exits.
The interplay between these two opposing approaches to children becomes another central theme. For instance while George and Lila insist on referring to PS's mother as "Dear One." Vanessa tells PS to say "my mother." Some of the most important...and visually beautiful--scenes are shot in the wild and grassy cemetery where Sinden is buried Unwilling to explain the mystery and loss of death to the boy. Lila and George tell him Sinden is with the angels. Vanessa sets him straight.
Besides refusing to baby PS. Vanessa goes quite a bit further at times. The first time be glimpses her, she is framed in white light, tall and glamorous, and his eyes widen in wonder. But if she appears angelic, she also has a much darker side. Terrified of Australia's frequent thunderstorms, she rushes to his room and holds him quivering and whispering Logan's name. The scenes though not explicit carry some heavy Freudian overtones.
THROUGHOUT the complex plot twists and painful soul-searching, Careful really belongs to PS. Gledhill appears not to have needed a word of direction Entirely guileless, he effectively underplays his bright and confused young character, whose emotions are subtle but very real.
Screenwriter Michael Jenkins has managed to capture a great deal of a child's innocent honesty without indulging in the saccharine coyness of many American kid characters. Several of PS's lines are so simple and yet realistic that the audience gasps in recognition and appreciation. Refusing to be taken away by a strange lady. PS tells Lila. I belong to you not to her," and finally. I won't go I won't I'll kill her.'"
Though the rest of the script is occasionally stilted, leaving all the adults somewhat caricatured, the generally fine acting overshadows minor flaws Robyn Nevin, in particular, is a strong willed and loving Lila, who will not let her family be destroyed by poverty or by Vanessa.
We can tell far less about who PS really is but this contrast too reflects one of the film's messages. PS has not yet been given any opportunity to find himself. Although the ending is a bit contrived, we want to believe that he has gained at least some understanding of the peculiarities of adults and about his own identity.
Perhaps PS has heard too much for his age, but he can deal with the flaws in his aunts and uncles better than they can. The title's irony is gently funny, and Gledhill gives us one of the most sincere and substantial child characters in films today. Careful He Might Hear You is not to be missed.