I'd had a bad day.
I'd spent much of the afternoon before viewing the 2008 Heartland Film Festival's closing night film, "Phoebe in Wonderland," dealing with a family emergency involving my brother.
My brother and I have always been different...the family's outsiders.
I am an adult living with spina bifida...a sexual abuse survivor, a child rights activist who peacefully lives outside the lines of what is often considered normal, adult behavior.
My brother has adapted less effectively to being different. He, at least, "appears" normal. He has no visible disabilities, but has also struggled mightily to fit into societal roles that seem foreign to him.
On this particular day, my brother had made some unhealthy choices, again. I wasn't feeling well physically, I was stressed out at work and, yes, I was upset about my brother.
It was in this frame of mind that I entered the world of writer/director Daniel Barnz's "Phoebe in Wonderland."
To say that I identified with Phoebe (Elle Fanning, "Reservation Road") would be an understatement. To say that I identified with Jamie (Ian Colletti, "Baby Mama"), the only child who seems to "get" Phoebe would also be an understatement. As well, to say I identified with Hillary Lichten (Felicity Huffman, "Desperate Housewives"), Phoebe's mother, would also be a tremendous understatement.
This is, perhaps, the most wondrous thing about Barnz's "Phoebe in Wonderland." It is a fantastical, marvelous world in which we draw strength from those things that make us unique and it is a world in which there's a little bit of everyone inside each of us.
In "Phoebe in Wonderland," Phoebe is a nine-year-old girl who is simultaneously adorable and troubled. Despite her most intense and heartbreaking efforts, Phoebe can't seem to control herself...her thoughts, her words or her impulses. Until the film's waning moments, we are not given a definition for what troubles Phoebe...because what troubles her is, indeed, not that which defines her.
Phoebe finds herself, rather unexpectedly, when she is cast in the role of Alice in a school production of "Alice in Wonderland" under the leadership of an eerily magical drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson, "Lars and the Real Girl"). Phoebe's increasingly erratic behavior, however, jeopardizes her involvement in the production and, perhaps, even her relationship with the only teacher who seems to give her room to be who she is courtesy of an uptight principal (Campbell Scott, "Secret of the Cave") who lives well within the box.
Barnz, in his feature film writing and directing debut after years toiling as a writer in Hollywood, directs with considerable confidence in both his young actors/actresses and his accomplished adult cast. Likewise, despite a screening room not really suitable for such a visual feast, Barnz infuses "Phoebe in Wonderland" with childlike imagery and enchanting visuals that enhance the story rather than dominate it.
Elle Fanning, sister of more widely recognized Dakota Fanning, gives both an exhilarating and a heartbreaking performance as Phoebe, a young girl who struggles to maintain a balance between her real and imaginary worlds. Fanning's Phoebe is impossible not to absolutely adore, a young girl who may be more frustrated with herself than even those around her. Fanning's performance is complex, multi-layered and constantly mesmerizing.
Patricia Clarkson is also stellar as Phoebe's rather peculiar drama teacher, a teacher whose unusual ways defy ordinary education methodology and, perhaps, indicate that she herself may recognize herself in Phoebe.
Felicity Huffman, as a mother who takes too much ownership of her daughter's challenges, gives a refreshingly honest and authentic voice to mothers everywhere who struggle to raise a challenging child. Huffman's Hillary is a woman who has sacrificed for her children, but who is also honest about her own shortcomings and challenges. Bill Pullman nicely portrays Phoebe's father, a man whose obsession with his writing may very well be his own escape from the realities of raising a daughter he doesn't understand.
Only Campbell Scott, as the principal of Phoebe's school, mildly disappoints with a performance that feels a touch bland in relation to the well developed, complex portrayals that surround him.
Christophe Beck's original score nicely complements the film's goings on, with a nice blend of moody and magical, while Bobby Bukowski's camera work nicely balances the stark reality of Phoebe's life with the more innocent world into which she escapes.
"Phoebe in Wonderland" is currently on the film festival circuit and headed for an arthouse release on THINKFilm in Spring 2008.
by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic