DVD Review: “Phoebe in Wonderland”

Written by DVD Reviews, Film

3605_PHOEBE IN WONDERLANDPhoebe in Wonderland (2009, Image)
purchase from Amazon: DVD

Elle Fanning gives one of the most touching and heart breaking performances you will see this year in writer/director Daniel Barnz’s Phoebe in Wonderland. This little seen gem that received a limited theatrical release is now available on DVD. With a thought provoking story, exemplary performances by Fanning, Felicity Huffman and Patricia Clarkson, and imaginative, beautiful cinematography by Bobby Bukowski, Phoebe in Wonderland is a movie you’ll be thinking about weeks after watching it for the first time.

Fanning is Phoebe Lichten, the precocious daughter of two writers, Hillary (Huffman) and Peter (an understated Bill Pullman). Hillary is struggling to complete a book on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, while Peter has just learned that his new book is going to be published. This family of four also includes little sister, Olivia (Bailee Madison). As the film opens, Phoebe, a social outcast with seemingly one friend, has begun showing signs of obsessive compulsive disorder, in particular washing her hands until they’re raw, and having occasional outbursts in class. Rules bug Phoebe and she isn’t afraid to let her teachers know it. However, Barnz implies early on that there is something deeper going on with Phoebe and that this isn’t just some pre-teen rebelliousness. Thankfully, he takes his time in getting us to the answer, allowing the characters time to grow and the story to unfold at a pleasant pace. When an unconventional theater teacher (Clarkson) casts Phoebe as the lead in a production of Alice in Wonderland, Phoebe discovers that performing on stage allows her to calm down and escape her lonely childhood life.

At home, Phoebe’s OCD goes into overdrive as she worries about whether she’ll get removed from the lead role and if she’ll be good enough. While Peter questions if there is something wrong with his daughter, Hillary is in denial. “She’s different; that’s good,” she says. When Phoebe’s outbursts get out of control and she calls her flamboyant best friend a nasty derogative word, Phoebe flees the stage and takes a nasty fall. This leads to her removal from the play and her world nearly unraveling. Finally, the parents listen to an eccentric but kindly doctor (Peter Garrity) who helps Phoebe and the family come to terms that Phoebe has a medical condition and is not just “different” or “difficult.”

Fanning, showing as much and perhaps even more range than her older, better known sister, easily moves through the variety of emotions that Barnz has written for her character. Unlike so many child actors, Fanning inhabits the role so genuinely that it never feels like she is acting. Her ability to bring to life Phoebe’s joy, pain, wonderment and sorrow show that she will be a talent to be reckoned with for years to come.

Phoebe in Wonderland is not just Phoebe’s story, though. The film carefully explores how Hillary copes with juggling motherhood and her stalled artistic ambitions. Hillary is a fiercely independent thinker and refuses to let her beloved child be labeled as difficult or sick, yet the difficulties of raising a child in distress are taking their toll. When Peter blurts out an unforgivable comment directed at Phoebe, not only is Hillary furious with him, but she’s furious with herself because she, too, has thought the same things. These negative feelings toward her daughter, compounded with the fact that she feels that her creative freedoms are getting sucked away make for a complex and brutally honest character. Huffman proves that her Academy Award nomination was no fluke. Once the Desperate Housewives finally close their front doors, I hope that Huffman enjoys a long film career.

While the premise of Phoebe in Wonderland may sound like a real downer, this film has a great deal of humanity and whimsy. Although there are some well earned real tear jerking moments (no manipulation here), you may find yourself with a large smile throughout the film. The scenes in which we enter Phoebe’s imagination and the characters from Alice in Wonderland come to life are joyful and capture what its like to be in a child’s mind. There is a sense of wonder in Phoebe in Wonderland that seems to be missing in so many family films, most of which are loud and crass. Although the end comes a little too quickly, everything else about Barnz’s film is near perfection.