Less a schmaltzy disease-of-the-week melodrama than a touching, ultimately inspiring portrait of a young girl learning to accept her individuality, "Phoebe in Wonderland" could potentially be used as an excellent teaching aid in elementary and middle schools. No, the film is not treated as a sermon, and that is part of its appeal. For younger audiences (of about nine and up) who may be faced with future classmates with OCD and Tourette syndrome, the picture offers entertainment as well as enlightenment. Adult viewers will be less informedif they do not already know what either disorder is, they must be living under a treebut will nonetheless be taken by the tough, well-told treatment of the story and the bevy of superlative performances on display.
9-year-old Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) is starting to sense that she is different than the rest of her peers, and others are picking up on it, too. Spitting at kids who provoke her, her mind telling her to perform repetitive acts and mime other people's speech, she has begun to get in trouble at school. Mother Hillary (Felicity Huffman), in denial and silently blaming her own parenting skills as she juggles Phoebe and intellectually advanced 7-year-old Olivia (Bailee Madison), passes her eldest daughter's behavior off with a "kids will be kids" mentality. Meanwhile, author father Peter (Bill Pullman) mostly stays neutral, busying himself in his writing.
The ongoing thematic ribbon tying things together is Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," a production of which is being readied by fabulously unorthodox drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson). Spurred by her mom's own love for the taleHillary is currently struggling her way through turning her dissertation about the fable into a bookPhoebe signs up for auditions. Visualizing the fantasy before her, she knocks it out of the park and wins the lead role. Onstage, Phoebe is transformed, free to be someone else rather than herself. Miss Dodger sees the special qualities in her pupil, even as one of the "awful normals," Principal Davis (Campbell Scott), continues to call Phoebe's parents in for conferences about her behavior and starts questioning Miss Dodger's teaching professionalism.
Written and directed by Daniel Barnz, "Phoebe in Wonderland" has a flair for visuals that swirl reality with flights of fancy. Phoebe's childhood imaginings, most of them based within the world of "Alice in Wonderland," are unforced and appropriately whimsical, as when a figure in a blue and white dress runs behind her at the top of a flight of stairs, or when she envisions run-ins with the Red Queen, Humpty-Dumpty and the White Rabbit. Offsetting for the better these cute interludes is a much more serious story of a little girl trying to find her place in a world where conforming to convention is the common demand of society. Meanwhile, Hillary's own journey as she comes to terms with where she is in her own life and the job she has done raising her two daughters strikes a resoundingly relatable chord. When Peter finally snaps and tells Phoebe that her mother would never be able to handle another child like her, Hillary's reactionone of anger against his insensitivity, one of empathy for Phoebe, and one of understanding, for she knows what he said is truebristles with the sometimes harsh complexity of being a loving parent.
A veteran at only the age of ten, Elle Fanning (2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
") has, up until now, been cast mostly in supporting parts that haven't fully tested the range of her acting abilities. That has all changed with Phoebe, and Fanning is so extraordinary in the role that it has the ability to take one's breath away. Global warming be damned, Fanning's smile alone could melt the polar ice caps. More than that, though, are the complicated layers she brings to the part of a girl who doesn't fully understand what she is going through and blames herself for the unrest she sees on the faces of those she loves.
As mother Hillary, Felicity Huffman (2007's "Georgia Rule
") is a powerhouse, not hitting a false note even as her character proves to be a little dense for not recognizing and instantly pinpointing Phoebe's affliction. Patricia Clarkson (2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona
") is warm and terrific as Miss Dodger, the sort of standout teacher who comes in and out of your life, but whom you never forget. Bill Pullman (2008's "Bottle Shock
") is the weak link as father Peter, awkwardly smirking his way through his scenes, while special accolades go to Ian Colletti (2008's "Baby Mama
") as Phoebe's "Alice in Wonderland" castmate Jamie, an outsider himself for seeking out and capturing the feminine role of the Queen of Hearts. Colletti exhibits a joy of performing and steals his scenes.
"Phoebe in Wonderland" doesn't exactly add up to more than expected. It is obvious what is plaguing the protagonist long before she is diagnosed, and at times begs the question of why something so generally common in the world would plague characters living in modern times. For uninformed kids, however, the film will intrigue and impact them, while older viewers will latch onto the intimate human drama at hand and the delicacy with which the story's messages are presented. Poignantly written by Daniel Barnz, with a secret weapon in the form of the enchanting Elle Fanning, "Phoebe in Wonderland" is a small movie in size, but large in heart and enthusiasm. Its lack of pretension even as it deals with a decidedly important subject is both rare and disarming.