Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) is a bright and imaginative nine year old who finds her creativity stifled by the rule-obsessed environment at her school. Until unconventional drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) breezes into her life and casts Phoebe in the lead in their school production of Alice in Wonderland. However, Phoebe’s parents, Hillary (Felicity Huffman) and Peter (Bill Pullman), both educated, liberal-leaning academics, struggle to cope with their eldest daughter’s increasingly erratic behaviour. Phoebe starts acting up both at school and home. As Phoebe escapes into fantasies of Wonderland, Hillary fancies these to be a cry for attention given she is currently writing an analysis of Lewis Carroll. Gradually, it becomes apparent Phoebe’s delusions are symptomatic of something other than childhood flights of fancy...
In a perfect world Phoebe in Wonderland would have been nominated for a brace of Academy Awards. Instead, this deft and densely-layered fantasy drama remains unaccountably obscure and, as far as this writer is aware, was not even released in the UK. Written and directed by Daniel Barnz, the film uses the philosophical undertones inherent in Lewis Carroll’s timeless children’s classic (“Who in the world am I?” is a quote that takes on increasing relevance as the story progresses) as a launching point for a study of mental illness, a satire of liberal attitudes to parenting, a critique of how the school system stifles childhood individuality, and above all the uplifting though uncompromising story of a troubled but resilient child putting herself back together. Barnz’s eloquent direction stands in marked contrast to his impersonal work on Beastly (2011) whilst the production design by Therese De Prez and cinematography by Bobby Buchowski are beautifully evocative, transporting viewers into a vibrant, enchanted world as seen through Phoebe’s eyes.
Those with an aversion to films dealing with precociously gifted children or over-articulate, educated couples should bear with this because the movie ultimately draws us somewhere quite special. At its heart beats a multifaceted performance from an effervescent Elle Fanning. Her enraptured reaction to each new discovery in an expanding world coupled with gut-wrenching depths of despair whenever her sanity crumbles, is a remarkable tour-de-force. She even shows off a fine singing voice in the unexpected song-and-dance finale. Complementing Fanning’s stellar work are two exceptional actresses: Patricia Clarkson and Felicity Huffman. Clarkson shines as the kind of inspirational figure many of us may wish we had in our younger days. She has a particularly fine scene where she confronts the children over a homophobic slur scrawled on the costume of a young boy enthusiastic about playing the Red Queen. Huffman is equally compelling as an intelligent but brittle woman whose indulgence towards her kids masks feelings of inadequacy as a parent and increasing resentment towards them. The film is not solely concerned with the children and boldly addresses feelings of frustration and anger felt by parents who worry they have sacrificed their dreams for the sake of their brilliant kids.
Each member of the outstanding ensemble cast hits a high note, including Campbell Scott as the weaselly principal who goes out of his way to avoid dealing with his children’s “personal problems” yet still conspires to use Phoebe’s troubles to sabotage Miss Dodger. Child actress Bailee Madison also delights as Phoebe’s equally gifted kid sister who memorably goes trick-or-treating dressed as Karl Marx! Punctuated with fantasies wherein characters re-enact key moments from Carroll’s text, the film ranks among the most ingenious subversions of Alice in Wonderland and a quite wondrous celebration of colour and imagination as a liberating force for young children, no matter how troubled.