'Phoebe In Wonderland': Anxiety, Angst And Alice

Elle Fanning In 'Phoebe In Wonderland' i i

Framing Story: Elle Fanning plays Phoebe, a child obsessed with Alice In Wonderland — and a few other things. ThinkFilm hide caption

itoggle caption ThinkFilm
Elle Fanning In 'Phoebe In Wonderland'

Framing Story: Elle Fanning plays Phoebe, a child obsessed with Alice In Wonderland — and a few other things.

ThinkFilm

Phoebe In Wonderland

  • Director: Daniel Barnz
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 96 minutes

Rated PG-13: Pre-pubescence, stage fright and dissertation deadlines

Felicity Huffman in 'Phoebe In Wonderland' i i

Down The Rabbit Hole: Phoebe's mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman), is also enmeshed with Alice, the topic of her dissertation. hide caption

itoggle caption
Felicity Huffman in 'Phoebe In Wonderland'

Down The Rabbit Hole: Phoebe's mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman), is also enmeshed with Alice, the topic of her dissertation.

Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is the kind of 9-year-old who scrawls "I've got angst" on a paper airplane and tosses it into her parents' dinner party. She is, in other words, the type of moody little creature who exists exclusively in the precincts of the Oppressively Whimsical Coming of Age Movie.

Premiered in 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival, which evidently possesses an infinite appetite for over-designed indie quirkiness, Phoebe In Wonderland blends reality and fantasy in a bid to enter the mind of its troubled young protagonist.

And troubled she is. The hypersensitive daughter of two writers (played by Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman), Phoebe is prone to neurotic repetitive behaviors — washing her hands until they bleed, endlessly skipping up and down staircases, Tourette's syndrome outbursts — that suggest a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Her nerves settle only when she's engaged in her school production of Alice in Wonderland, led by a preternaturally self-possessed, impossibly empathic drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson). Phoebe's solace is threatened by an unimaginative principal (Campbell Scott) and bullying classmates, but mostly she's her own worst enemy.

Writer-director Daniel Barnz sustains an ambiguity as to whether OCD really is the culprit or Phoebe is merely an unusually high-strung but essentially healthy young girl. Lots of kids fabricate random repetitive tasks and charge them with profound, even magic consequences — fateful challenges of the "Step on a crack, break your mother's back" ilk — and the movie engages with this indeterminacy until it collapses under the weight of its own sentimentality.

Maudlin as it is, Phoebe aches with genuine sympathy for its wee basket case. Where the adults are uniformly rote and stilted, Fanning gives a strong, committed performance deserving of a tougher directorial vision.

Barnz suffocates his material with rhetorical tics and tropes: symmetrical compositions, twee production design, eruptions of magic realism. Such mannerisms have been endemic to American indies since Rushmore, and once again a disciple of the Wes Anderson school of whimsy puts the cart before the horse.

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