Elle Fanning as Phoebe Lichten in "Phoebe In Wonderland", Daniel Barnz's feature film-directing debut.  Mr. Barnz also wrote the film,
which opened today in several select U.S. cities including San Francisco.  (Photo: ThinkFilm)

Phoebe In Wonderland
Menagerie Of Melancholy, Make-Believe And Melodrama
By Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com    
Friday, March 6, 2009

Enchantment and existentialism collide in "Phoebe In Wonderland", a tale about a precocious and unsettled nine-year-old named Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) whose passion for theater at her school is an escape from the tense atmosphere swirling around her parents, one an up-and coming successful writer (Bill Pullman), the other a writer lacking focus (Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman).  Written and directed by Daniel Barnz, "Phoebe In Wonderland" marks Mr. Barnz's feature film directing debut.  The film, which opened in select U.S. cities today, is shot (by Bobby Bukowski) in alternately bright and dark tones, mixing the joy, wonderment and adventure of a child with the doubts and fears of a child moving towards the horizon of adolescence and inevitable uncertainty.

Phoebe is a rule-breaker but not through her own volition, as we find out.  Psychiatrists and principals try to assess what's wrong with her as she behaves every more strangely but it is the eccentric drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) who appears to have an inspirational effect on Phoebe.  While Hillary (Ms. Huffman) and Peter (Mr. Pullman) fight and claw and try to keep a tenuous household together with Phoebe's younger sister Olivia (Bailee Madison), Phoebe is both outside and inside the house illuminating the vivid imagination she possesses.  She wants so badly to be part of the school's stage play -- specifically to play Alice from Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland.  For Phoebe, nothing else matters -- even if she occasionally alienates some members of her class.

"Phoebe In Wonderland" is earnest and light, but it also has its rougher edges.  The film is a study of the way adults and children interact.  It's not a cliche about children showing adults the way or vice versa -- it is about making a fragmented world just a little less so and finding one's way in it.  To that end Patricia Clarkson is priceless as Miss Dodger, the stand-out performer of all here.  She plays teacher with nuance using subtlety and perhaps some of the character's own previous hardships as she dispense wisdom and witticism.  Miss Clarkson is the kind of performer who never puts a foot wrong.  She always seems to center a film with her fine acting no matter how big or small her role is.

Miss Fanning is also good here in the title role, appearing to show much less of the "hey-look-at-me-I-can-act" demeanor than her older sister Dakota used to.  The younger Miss Fanning embraces her character and inner Alice with sweetness and volatility as she navigates the choppy waters of young life.  Ms. Huffman grasps the angst-ridden Hillary and uncovers layers of a character that is difficult and interesting yet could have been even deeper than portrayed.  The actress had to find the tone for Hillary and as a first time director Mr. Barnz manages to find the confidence and direction to bring these New York stage-trained performers together and harness their talents to produce some good moments, including Campbell Scott as the school's rudderless Principal Davis.

With: Ian Colletti, Peter Gerety, Madhur Jaffrey, Maddie Corman and Max Baker.

"Phoebe In Wonderland" opened today in New York, San Francisco (at the Lumiere 3), in Los Angeles, Cambridge, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Seattle, South Florida and Washington D.C.  The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic material and brief strong language.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  PopcornReel.com.  2009.  All Rights Reserved. 

Related: Phoebe In Wonderland trailer



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