(We're reposting this review from the Sundance Film Festival to coincide with the film's theatrical release)
By: Kim Voynar
First time writer/director Daniel Barnz knocks it out of the park with Phoebe in Wonderland, an imaginative, layered tale about a young girl struggling to fit in and find her place. Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota Fanning) stars as Phoebe, a nine-year-old girl who finds herself struggling against the conformity and rules around her. Phoebe is an intelligent and creative child with a passion for Alice in Wonderland.
Phoebe's attachment to this particular literary obsession is not a coincidence; her mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman) is writing a book on Wonderland that expounds upon her doctoral dissertation on the subject, so naturally Phoebe sees Alice as a means to be closer to her mother. It's also not coincidental that Phoebe, like Alice, finds the normal world a very boring and rigid place where she doesn't quite fit in, and wishes to escape to a world where anything can happen. Phoebe's also dealing with trying to control some behavioral issues that seem to have a life of their own, and in the world of school, where rules are king and they don't always make sense, Phoebe finds herself increasingly on the wrong side of the principal's desk. And then along comes Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson), an eccentric drama teacher who introduces herself to the students by poking her head into the classroom and reciting Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky, much to the confusion of the students, who had previously been listening to lecture after lecture about "Just Right Jenny," who's always perfect and follows the rules.
To Phoebe, Just Right Jenny's rules just don't make sense (When can you ask a question? Only when it's the time for asking questions, of course. And how will you know when it's time? Sorry, but it's not time to ask that question right now). In Miss Dodger, though, Phoebe finds a kindred spirit, that rare adult who wants children to ask questions, and who trusts that, if she just stays back out of the way, the children will do and learn and create in the most amazing ways.
Phoebe decides to audition for the school play -- Alice in Wonderland -- and Miss Dodger, seeing that spark of imagination in her, casts her as Alice. In the play with Phoebe is her friend, Jamie, a little boy with a remarkable grasp of his sexuality, and a rare willingness to just be who he is, regardless of what other kids might think -- including auditioning for (and landing) the part of the Red Queen.
That's the basic gist of the story, but there are so many rich layers to explore in this carefully crafted story; it's rather like a kaleidoscope, in that what you see and get out of it shifts and changes depending on which character's perspective you're looking at, and what ideas you bring to watching it. For instance, there is this quite brilliant use of communication woven throughout the story: Phoebe, who is prone to inappropriate outbursts, spitting, and obsessive behaviors like washing her hands a certain number of times or walking a certain way, communicates her frustrations and feelings more authentically than most people, because she's growing increasingly unable to self-censor.
Her mother and father, Peter, (Bill Pullman), on the other hand, are both academians who use words as weapons and shields to thrust and parry without really communicating. The desire for conformity in the school setting is communicated through endless words the adults use to talk at (not to) the children.
There are also some interesting issues around parenting explored in the story. Both Phoebe's parents are writers, but her father has just found out his book is being published, while Hillary struggles to find time to write, balancing her desire to work with being mother to Phoebe and her sister. She says frequently to Peter that she never has time to write, but he doesn't seem to hear how terribly lost and nearly desperate she feels in dealing with her conflicting feelings around work and motherhood. Hillary is conflicted around Phoebe as well. An intelligent woman, she wants her daughter to be smart and creative and not to conform, but faced with the reality of Phoebe, she spends much of her time just wanting Phoebe to fit in. Phoebe acts out in ways that her mother admires, even as it drives her crazy with worry, but at the same time there's an underlying sense of respect there for who Phoebe is, and a deep maternal desire to keep Phoebe's uniqueness intact.
Strong performances from Clarkson and Huffman bolster the film, but both roles require playing off Phoebe in all her myriad emotions, and thus the film weighs heavily on the petite shoulders of young Miss Fanning, who proves herself more than equal to the task. Fanning was quite good in Babel, but she's pretty brilliant here, perfectly capturing Phoebe in all her extremes; it's a performance quite beyond Fanning's young years, but she nails it to the wall. There's a certain luminous quality about her, and she lights up the screen in every scene. Barnz is blessed with a talented cast for his feature debut, and they make him look good. Giving credit where it's due, though, Barnz also gives them an imaginative and original script to work from; collectively, the cast takes the material and puts you squarely into Phoebe's world.