‘Phoebe in Wonderland’ is a fanciful metaphorical fable

by Bill Wine
Posted 1/28/21

“Phoebe in Wonderland” (2008) boasts three splendid performances by a trio of gifted actresses. And one of them is — that is, was — a 10-year-old.

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‘Phoebe in Wonderland’ is a fanciful metaphorical fable

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Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Welcome to a wonderland of wondrous acting.

“Phoebe in Wonderland” (2008) boasts three splendid performances by a trio of gifted actresses. And one of them is — that is, was — a 10-year-old.

Felicity Huffman and Patricia Clarkson shine in support. But it's young Elle Fanning -- yep, Dakota's younger sister -- who, as the protagonist, carries the film on her little shoulders in an astoundingly demanding and assured performance.

She plays the suburban schoolgirl of the title. In her environment, Phoebe Lichten is different, either because she's a creative soul surrounded by rules, rules, rules. Or just because she doesn't fit in at school. Or perhaps she really is riddled with an affliction that is being ignored or downplayed by her loved ones.

We're left to decide whether something is wrong with nine-year-old Phoebe, or whether she is just going through a rough patch not unlike everyone's early rough patches. Hers, however, tend to the extreme as she frequently exhibits antisocial behavior, blurting out insults or spitting at classmates, hand-washing and step-climbing and doing an assortment of problematic activities with obsessive-compulsive urgency.

Her college-professor mother and her novelist father, played by Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman, are in denial, refusing to put a label on her condition, if indeed it is a condition, and feeling helpless to help her get to a comfortable place in her universe. When a shrink suggests that there may be something very wrong with Phoebe, they decide to look for help elsewhere.

With her parents disappointing her even as she's getting picked on at school as an outcast, Phoebe seeks refuge in the nearest fantasy world. Fortunately, there's one nearby.

Her eccentric drama teacher, a kindred spirit played by Clarkson, is directing a school production of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland -- the subject of Phoebe's mom's doctoral dissertation, it just so happens -- for which Phoebe auditions and wins the title role.

From that point on, only when she's rehearsing does Phoebe feel at peace, interacting with characters from Wonderland -- imaginary friends who look suspiciously similar to people in her life -- as she tries to reconcile the two worlds she inhabits.

This thoughtfully realistic yet aggressively whimsical drama addresses the difficulties of childhood and parenting, the obstacles to individuality, the limitations of conformity, and the power of imagination.

Debuting writer-director Daniel Barnz's ambitious drama is as poignant as it is compelling, offering plenty of sensitivity as well as wisdom about family life. If it stumbles a bit in the late going, it's partially because what has preceded it has been so emotionally powerful.

Huffman is impressive as the loving, protective, and guilt-ridden mother, as is Clarkson as the captivatingly eccentric but dedicated mentor. But it's Fanning who gives the film its transcendent distinction. In a beyond-her-years performance that borders on the amazing, she never pushes too hard for effect, never lets us see any self-conscious technique, never loses the thread of her complex character for an instant. Child or no child, Fanning offers work that probably deserved at least an Oscar nod.

“Phoebe in Wonderland” is a fanciful metaphorical fable about seeking creative refuge from the harshness of reality that's at times inordinately moving. Best of all is one Elle of a lead performance from an extraordinarily gifted youngster fanning the flames of stardom.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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