Phoebe in Wonderland

Go see “Phoebe in Wonderland.”

I understand if you’re a little turned off by the cutesy premise of a little girl who imagines herself a modern-day Alice in Wonderland after getting the lead in her school play. But if you promise to keep reading, I’ll let you in on a secret.

Still with me? That’s not what the movie is really about.

I know, a trailer lied to us! Shocker.

Anyway, “Phoebe in Wonderland” stars Elle Fanning as Phoebe, a 9-year-old with a heavy dose of imagination and low self-control. She spits at kids when she’s frightened or angry; she has trouble talking in coherent sentences; she can’t always tell what’s real and what’s imaginary.

Sure, it’s got these amazing fantasy episodes, but “Phoebe in Wonderland” is really about the family at the center of the drama.  

Phoebe’s mom, Hillary (Felicity Huffman), loves that her daughter is different and that she refuses to just be an elementary school sheep, but Hillary’s also blinded by fear of the root of her daughter’s troubles. Bill Pullman plays Phoebe’s father, Peter, who has known for a while that their daughter needs help they can’t give, but he’s feeling the strain of his wife’s disbelief.

So often in films, especially kids’ films, it feels like there always has to be a villain in the family, and it’s refreshing to see a film where the parents are loving but flawed people, just like real parents. Like a real couple, they both draw strength from each other as well as rip each other to pieces. They make mistakes, they fight, and sometimes, they just aren’t there for the kids when they should be. Pullman and Huffman are totally convincing as parents who love their children and each other, but sometimes just get overwhelmed by the task.

Let’s not forget Fanning here; like her sister (I bet she’s sick of that comparison), she pulls off the near-impossible, a natural performance from a child actor. She breathes life into this little girl’s story and never wavers in her portrayal of someone lost with no way to get help. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

The only real letdown in the film is Patricia Clarkson, who is the director of the play Miss Dodger. I love Clarkson in just about anything, but here, her character is one-dimensionally good and kooky, that I just got tired of it. She, I guess, is supposed to represent who Phoebe can be when she grows up, but bleh. And it’s not her fault that her character gets stuck delivering the ultra preachy- and self-righteous speech, but in a movie that feels so real in so many other places, Miss Dodger just comes across as a big ol’ fake.

I guess it can’t be perfect. Dammit. But even if it’s flawed, it’s worth seeing.

“Phoebe in Wonderland” (2009)

Written and directed by Daniel Barnz

Starring: Elle Fanning (Phoebe)

Felicity Huffman (Hillary)

Bill Pullman (Peter)

Patricia Clarkson (Miss Dodger)

  • Jim

    I’ve put this on my Netflix queue. I had never really heard anything about it, just the name, but your review makes me interested. We’ll see how I like it soon enough.