Rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language, 96 minutes
"Phoebe in Wonderland" is a wonderfully peculiar experience
"Phoebe in Wonderland" is an imperfect but wonderously peculiar movie, too leisurely paced but superbly acted by a terrific cast. It's an offbeat but sometimes brilliant film about an odd little girl whose life changes when she lands the part of Alice in "Alice in Wonderland" in a school play. Anyone who is perceived as "different" or has trouble obeying the rules in life will relate to "Phoebe" well could be a nice alternative to the all the "Watchmen" fervor going on this weekend.
Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) is an peculiar but intelligent little girl who won't - or can't - follow the rules. She has some habits that some might find a little strange - she spits on her classmates, often repeats phrases and must wash her hands a certain number of times in OCD fashion. Her parents (Bill Pullman and Felicity Huffman) are distracted writers who don't often understand their odd daughter and send her to a psychiatrist for help.
In the meantime, confounded by her clashes with the rule-obsessed world around her, Phoebe seeks enlightenment from her unconventional drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) who sees potential in her and casts her in the school production of "Alice in Wonderland" as Phoebe's mother is writing her dissertation on the same subject. Phoebe becomes quickly obsessed with the play and finds escape to a fantasy world, hoping to gain more understanding of herself and the real world around her.
"Phoebe in Wonderland" is a touching, affecting drama that explores life from the view of an odd child. It's too leisurely and has a choppy, uneven feel to it but filled with moments of brilliance from novice director and writer David Barnz, directing and writing only his second film. It's also superbly performed by a gifted cast including Elle Fanning (Dakota's younger sister, and the two sound alike) in her first lead cinematic role, who brings a energy, sensitivity and warmth to the role of a peculiar but angsty young girl.
"Phoebe" has some entertaining and poignant moments, particularly in the staging of the play and Phoebe's fantasy escapes, but becomes dragged down by family drama. Clarkson is excellent as Phoebe's equally odd drama teacher, as is Huffman as her distracted but smart mother, though she inexplicably wears a dark (and ill-fitting) wig when her daughter is so obviously blond. Pullman has little to do, as does Campbell Scott as Phoebe's nerdy principal.
"Phoebe" is best when it focuses on Phoebe being Phoebe - spitting, repeating things and becoming upset when things don't go her way. Sometimes we have to escape to a fantasy world to deal with the real world (that's why I enjoy movies so much), and hopefully become an inspiration to others. "Phoebe in Wonderland" isn't a message movie but does convey the need for acceptance, love and that while we should obey the rules, it's OK to be a little different.