Phoebe in Wonderland is a bittersweet and strange little gem with a talented cast. Elle Fanning is young Phoebe, a girl more comfortable in fantasy land than in reality due to an undiagnosed mental disorder that causes OCD. Her dark, depressed mom, Hillary, (Felicity Huffman) fights against motherhood and procrastination on her book about Alice in Wonderland. The film moves between Phoebe’s real struggles which impact her family and school and conforming, her dream world involving Alice in Wonderland and her ultimate realization of portraying Alice in the school play.
Phoebe’s unconventional theater teacher, Miss Dodger, (Clarkson) calmly draws the girl out by casting her as the lead in the school production of Alice in Wonderland. Around other children at school, Phoebe is shy and awkward but once she gets up on stage, she is focused and imaginative and brave. Miss Dodger encourages the young children to be freer and to open up in new ways on the stage. Phoebe admits to her psychiatrist that she wants to get away from the structured life in which she must live and the stage remains one place where fewer rules limit her. She can be happiest on stage.
Phoebe confides to her friend, another outsider, Jamie, who chooses to play the Queen of Hearts in the play: “Sometimes I get this feeling; this feeling of jumping off the edge of a roof…it’s what I feel like all the time with the things I do. I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help it. It’s like being on the edge of the roof all the time.”
Fanning exhibits intense emotional range in this role. It is impressive to see such a young actress be vulnerable. Her scenes are unsettling, touching, upsetting, sometimes painful. She can easily move from hurt to wide-eyed amazement and it is a delight to watch her on screen. Fanning is honest, open and raw with the material. Huffman is very good in this dulled down role as a frenzied mom who wants her child to be accepted label-free. She effectively shows stress, guilt, fear, exasperation and unconditional love.
As the film moves on it is evident that Phoebe wants to play Alice to be part of her mother’s world. Hillary, in turn, feels she is not being a good enough mother and not spending enough time with her two daughters. She resents her husband’s independence and that he has been published and she is facing writer’s block because she has to “deal” with Phoebe’s issues each day. The family’s crisis takes hold and seems like it might ruin the dynamics until reasoning sets in.
Phoebe in Wonderland delves into serious issues in an imaginative way.
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