Phoebe in Wonderland

“Phoebe in Wonderland,” writer-director Daniel Barnz’s debut feature, is a mixed bag, a film that can’t find its narrative center or right tone, variegating between worlds of dreams and nightmares, fantasy and reality, alternating surreal and whimsical notes with more serious ones.

A Lifetime Network production, “Phoebe in Wonderland” seems unable to decide if it’s just a star-driven “Disease of the Week Movie” (to put it bluntly) or a lyrical tale about a mentally challenged girl, blessed (and cursed) by fertile imagination.

The movie premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (in dramatic competition), and now, a year later, is getting limited theatrical release by Thinkfilm.
Nominally, “Phoebe in Wonderland” is a captivating tale of a 9-year old girl named Phoebe Lichten, splendidly played by Elle Fanning (Dakota’s younger sister), who manifests obsessive-compulsive disorder and unable to conform or follow any rules. A dreamer, she’s a good-hearted, sensitive girl, perplexed by her inability to get along with the surrounding real world, which, of course, is governed by norms, laws, rules and regulations, embodied by parents, teachers, peers, and friends.
Rather schematically, the yarn depicts two types of adults, those who encourage Phoebe’s flights of fancy and vivid independence and those who discourage and try to oppress and repress them. In other words, the movie wants to have it both ways, to be cautionary and inspirational at the same time, to preach for conformity but also individuality.
Phoebe’s parents, anguished mother Hillary (Felicity Huffman) and career-driven father Peter (Bill Pullman), are both academics who dot on their children; she has one younger sister. While Peter is a published author, Hilary is a dedicated wife-mom who neglects her thesis work, which “happens” to be about “Alice in Wonderland.” The Richtens do what most parents do, take responsibility and blame themselves for her condition, rather than consult and trust “outsiders” like charismatic instructors and caring psychiatrists.
For enlightenment and recreation, Phoebe seeks solace from Miss Dodger (well played by Patricia Clarkson), her eccentric, strangely dressed drama teacher, who is contrasted with the school’s rigidly bureaucratic principal (Campbell Scott, Clarkson’s real-life companion). Unable to adjust, Phoebe loses herself in a make-believe world, a wonderland. It “just happens” that the dramatic club is rehearsing “Alice in Wonderland,” and in a wonderful scene Miss Dodger encourages Phoebe (who is of course cast as Alice) to jump off, plunge into an alternate world.
Meanwhile, Phoebe’s psychological and mental conditions continue to deteriorate. Her odd anti-social behavior is reflected in both physical and mental gestures, obsessively counting the steps, jumping up and down the stairs, spitting on students, and other bursts of anger.
There is a whole literary and cinematic tradition of female-driven fairytales, most recently “Coraline,” and before that, John Sayles’ “The Secret of the Roan Inish,” Rebecca Miller’s 1995 debut “Angela” (which also premiered at Sundance), Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” and Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” all of which dwell on special, independent girls, blessed by the kind of imagination and fantasy that border on what mainstream culture considers to be strange if not downright abnormal.
Severely flawed, Barnz’s work is dramatically unfocused. In moments, the film captures vividly the process of a young girl’s process of self-discovery, her journey toward self and social acceptance, while not losing completely her individuality. In other moments, it’s stirring and fun to behold Phoebe as Alice, communicating with the Mad Hatter and Red Queen; Phoebe’s chum Jamie (Ian Colletti) is a boy who auditions for and is cast as the Red Queen!
Problem is, the screenplay doesn’t deal directly with the source of Phoebe’s anguish, or with how troubled or self-abusive she is, even though she clearly engages in self-destructive pain-inflicting rites and rituals. Toward the end, it’s revealed that she suffers from Tourette syndrome, evident in “anti-social” behavior though the filmmaker refuses to label her too narrowly, perhaps fearing of imbuing the story with too much pathos.
That said, while the narrative is flawed, the acting is not. A cast of talented actors rises above the confusion of the text and the limitation of their roles. Elle Fanning gives a standout performance in her breakout role, conveying delicately every phase of Phoebe’s odyssey without ever condescending to the part or being too cute or precocious.
Among the adult characters, it’s the two women, Huffman and especially Clarkson, who shine, though Pullman and Scott are also more than decent. Production values are quite impressive for a first feature and I wish the narrative elements would match the film’s highly accomplished technical aspects.