Image Entertainment // 2008 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Tamika Adair (Retired) // June 24th, 2009
Dare to dream your life.
Whether in The Station Agent (my favorite), Six Feet Under, the more recent Elegy, or here in Phoebe in Wonderland, Patricia Clarkson is undeniably enchanting. The younger Fanning proves acting is definitely genetic. The way she dives into the disturbing role of Phoebe is genuine, yet so exquisite.
Phoebe in Wonderland follows Phoebe (Elle Fanning, Reservation Road), as she struggles to live up to expectations that surround her. A little girl who marches to the beat of her own drum, young Phoebe is prone to endless daydreams and self abuse. A talented but troubled child, Phoebe tries out for the title-role in her school's play, Alice in Wonderland. Her eccentric drama teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson, Vicky Christina Barcelona), sees something in her that is profound enough to cultivate. However, her parents are content to blame themselves for Phoebe's behavioral problems and resort to denial rather than letting outsiders diagnose her with mental illness. Unable to cope with a world which she considers hopeless, she often loses herself in an imaginary world.
Phoebe's world is unfit to live in. Her parents constantly fail her. Her teachers can't seem to control her. Her classmates ridicule and pick fights with her. In Phoebe's small bag of tricks, she suffers from a mild case of OCD, anti-social personality disorder, Tourette's and maybe a couple more. As her parents fight between their two separate stances on whether Phoebe is merely a "special" child or one who needs professional help, Phoebe retreats to the depths of her imagination for refuge. Her younger sister, who may be the only one who can reach her, resents that position and craves a normal sibling. She begs her mother for a brother or a sister, but Phoebe's mother cannot cope with reality of Phoebe's ailments or her own career disappointments to risk having another child.
This disorienting and depressing world writer-director Daniel Barnz creates is a testament to the constant struggles kids face in being kids and the parents who suck as parents. Fraught with the overwhelming pressures of parenthood, authorship and having a husband who is as clueless and helpless as she is, Phoebe's mother (Felicity Huffman, Transamerica) uses denial as a coping mechanism. Phoebe's father, the more successful of the pair, (Bill Pullman, Bottle Shock) can't help the situation but obviously wants no part of it. Under such dysfunction, it's no wonder why some kids are in such a rush to grow up. Phoebe, on the other hand, would rather enjoy the exploits of a world in her head. No rules. No parents. No disappointment. Phoebe is on a journey. A journey to Wonderland.
At first, Miss Dodger comes off as intimidating and impatient. But later she acclimates herself to the children, especially Phoebe, and shows how encouraging she can be. Mythological and wise, Miss Dodger seems like she is straight from a fairytale and every bit as out of the ordinary as Phoebe is. She shines as she remains Phoebe's only source of solace. Rather that treat kids as invalids, with endless rules and direction, she lets them figure things out for themselves.
As Phoebe transitions through a myriad of emotions almost seamlessly, you're transfixed at how transparent this child is. Her dreamy sense of wonder and reality play out so beautifully on screen. Phoebe can't help but spurt out things that she can't say. She has sudden fits of terror and confusion that scare her parents. And she can't seem to stop spitting on other children in her efforts to defend herself.
In his debut film, Daniel Barnz straddles the line between the wonder of make-believe and the fearsome prison it becomes when you're confined to it. He asks the question: When does being "special" become mentally delusional and do we as parents know the difference enough to encourage the former before it becomes the latter?
The film progresses unevenly from a tender, honest and revealing portrait of a disturbed child to uplifting tale of redemption, you begin to wonder what kind of film Branz is making. Phoebe in Wonderland starts off dark and gets too light, syrupy, and artificial for my liking. I think the problem lies in Lifetime Pictures' part in the production. Like Sweet and Low, I'm left with a bad taste in my mouth when I see how everything magically comes together. Although the film exposes a lot, it still feels like we are not seeing the whole picture.
I'm also dying to know more about Phoebe's parents. The character development in the secondary players is so diluted, it's a wonder how much depth Pullman and Huffman bring to it. It's so telling how Bill Pullman says to Phoebe's mother, "Just out of curiosity, how am I supposed to care about your work if you don't?" We never know much about the book that Phoebe's mother aches to finish, other than that it shares the subject of Wonderland. This withholding fact prevents us from truly identifying with her plight as a failing mother, wife and writer. I also wanted to know more about Phoebe's little sister. It's so unique to find a younger sibling who is burdened by the actions of the older one. I wanted the little sister to confront Phoebe and find out why she helped Phoebe when she resented her presence at the same time.
The audio and video transfers were cleanly done on this screener copy. The image is crisp with no visual defects of any kind and the sound crystal clear. My only problem is when the watermark appeared on the screen and the picture would revert black and white. You can't imagine how irritating that is.
Visually, the cinematography is a beautiful playground of soft colors, light and exceptional texture. Musically, Canadian composer Christophe Beck drifts you in and out of the chasms of Phoebe's imaginative mind. Not too heavy or forceful, Beck's score is as whimsical and quirky as Phoebe herself. He playfully paints with notes that equally convey the lightness and darkness of Phoebe's many moods.
Unfortunately, because it is a screener I don't have the added pleasure of special features. I would have loved to see how Elle Fanning acts behind-the-scenes, what the other actors thought of her performance, and also a closer look at Patricia Clarkson.
Phoebe in Wonderland has obvious flaws, but it's still worth a look.
Review content copyright © 2009 Tamika Adair; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13