- Rated PG-13
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All photos © THINKFilm
Reviewed by Will Harris
f you’re neither a child nor a parent, then it may seem on the surface that “Phoebe in Wonderland” is not the film for you. After all, the poster shows us that it’s about a young girl named Phoebe, and most of the one-line descriptions of the movie offer little more insight than the fact that Phoebe is an eccentric child who searches her place in the world and finds it by way of a school production of “Alice in Wonderland.” Doesn’t exactly sound like a cross-demographic smash hit, does it?
Well, actually, when you think about it, there’s no reason it couldn’t be. After all, we were all children once.
Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is a creative little girl who struggles with the number of seemingly inexplicable rules and regulations being thrust upon her by the outside world. She speaks out of turn in class – with her choices of phrase often highly inappropriate – and as she finds herself with precious little in common with her classmates, she gradually retreats into a fantasy world. Her parents (played by Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman) are creative types themselves, so they attempt to shrug off Phoebe’s actions as typical childhood behavior, sending her to therapy more as a preventative measure than anything else.
Soon, however, Phoebe’s actions begin to escalate both at school and at home, but just as her mother and father are about to throw up their hands in defeat, someone new enters her life: Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson), the drama teacher. The school is preparing to put on a performance of “Alice in Wonderland,” and although Phoebe at first seems an unlikely candidate for participation, Miss Dodger finds herself surprised to learn that she and this girl are more alike than she had expected. Both of them, however, soon find a nemesis in Principal Davis (Campbell Scott), whose desire to maintain discipline within the school is steadfast and unwavering.
The blend of “Wonderland”-inspired fantasy sequences can in no way compete with the real-life drama and mystery going on in the film, but they do keep things visually interesting throughout. Those who dare to enter the world created by first-time writer/director Daniel Barnz, however, will find themselves mesmerized by Fanning’s performance as Phoebe. The emotional intricacies of the character are such that few young actresses could have managed the role, but Fanning never wavers.
It helps, of course, that she’s backed by a stellar ensemble. Scott is clearly enjoying the opportunity to play the villain by way of a clueless authority figure, while Clarkson imbues Miss Dodger with an air of mystery that will make the more creative members of the audience long that she had been their teacher. Huffman and Pullman are, by virtue of the evolution of the story, forced to gradually realize what we know from the very beginning (that there’s more to Phoebe’s problems than simply “kids will be kids”), but they’ve got the chops to pull it off. It’s also worth noting that, of the other children in the cast, both Bailee Madison and Ian Colletti do particularly fine work; Madison plays Phoebe’s oft-neglected younger sister, who’s a prodigy but gets less attention by virtue of being less of a handful, while Colletti endures the taunts of his classmates when he desires to play the Red Queen.
“Phoebe in Wonderland” is a film which reminds us that the line between creativity and madness is one which is often drawn surprisingly early in life, but Barnz’s most impressive achievement is that he successfully straddles the line of having us sympathize with both the children and the adults. Yes, Phoebe is a handful, but is she a product of her environment, her genetics, or a bit of both? We want to dislike the parents when we think they might be the cause of the child’s problems, but Barnz throws a wrench into the works by presenting us with the possibility that the parents may well have problems of their own.
No, “Phoebe in Wonderland” probably won’t be a box office smash, but if you were one of those kids who always felt a little bit out of place and you’ve still never entirely divested yourself of that feeling, it’s a film you’ll want to see.