Netflix Update No. 22: “Phoebe in Wonderland”
October 26, 2009
We watched “Phoebe in Wonderland,” a 2008 fantasy written and directed by Daniel Barnz.
This film is an off-beat tale about a nine-year-old girl, Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning), who is brilliant and creative, but who confounds her parents and her rigid teachers and principal with outbursts of inappropriate remarks and behavior.
Phoebe’s mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman as a brunette), is frustrated by her inability to find time — amid housekeeping and raising two little girls — to convert her academic dissertation on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” novels into a book. With her mother’s encouragement, Phoebe has immersed herself in Carroll’s fanciful neighborhoods to the point that she has frequent imaginary encounters with his characters. The competing forces in Phoebe’s psyche are effectively portrayed by Barnz through the blurring of identities between people in Phoebe’s real life and Humpty Dumpty, the Caterpillar, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, and the Mad Hatter
Coincidentally — or not, depending on your point of view — Miss Dodger, the new, idiosyncratic drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) is mounting a musical production based on Carroll’s stories. This enterprise becomes a kind of sanctuary for Phoebe — the one place where she can overcome her compulsive outbursts. But there is too much amiss with the little girl, and with her parents, and with the management of the school, to stave off a crisis and an unexpected if not totally comfortable resolution.
Like the film “Millions” which I wrote about here on October 19, this is not for viewers who take things literally or insist on reality in their movies. The film is blessed by a talented cast — also including Bill Pullman as Peter Lichten, Phoebe’s father, and Bailee Madison as Olivia, Phoebe’s sister. The beautiful Tessa Albertson has a brief but haunting non-speaking role as Alice.
This film argues that a person cannot be defined by one or two aspects of her personality. The world around Phoebe — her parents, her siblings, her peers, and most of her teachers — failed her as long as they embraced only the “acceptable” parts of the girl or hoped to make the whole girl acceptable to them by badgering or ridiculing her.
The inscrutable Miss Dodger and the fleeting figure of Alice — who may be better acquainted than they let on at first — provide the only unqualified reassurance Phoebe receives that she, with her strengths and her weaknesses, is a person of value.