Phoebe in Wonderland uses the visual fantasy of Lewis Carroll's Alice novels to explore the life of a young girl with undiagnosed mental health issues. Phoebe (a wonderful performance from then nine year old Elle Fanning) lives with her parents and younger sister. Both of her parents are writers, with her mother working on a book about Alice in Wonderland. The children are raised in a house that encourages them to be different and express themselves. When Phoebe has a chance to play Alice in a school production, she builds up the courage to audition, setting her tapping, walking, and jumping rituals into overdrive. Phoebe is presented as a bright and inquisitive child with a wild imagination. For the first thirty or so minutes, we're viewing the girl from the perspective of her mother (ably played by Felicity Hoffman) who refuses to admit that anything might be wrong with her daughter. However, it becomes increasingly clear that Phoebe cannot control her rituals and even starts patterns of more disruptive behavior--shouting, spitting, and conversations with people who aren't there.
The only world Phoebe thrives in is theater. Her teacher, Miss Dodger, gives her a second chance to audition for Alice in Wonderland after she's dismissed immediately for showing up late. Phoebe admits for the first time that she has a problem, "I have to wash my hands a certain amount of times," allowing Miss Dodger to become the most compassionate and therapeutic influence in her life. With hands scrubbed raw, Phoebe takes Miss Dodger's direction and gives the best audition of any student in the school.
Writer/director Daniel Barnz crafts a delicate story of coming to terms with mental illness. He gets at this great sense of realism by allowing Phoebe to escape into a total fantasy world. Phoebe "can't stop" herself from performing her rituals, so she knows she has a problem. It is her family, her teachers, and her peers that struggle with her. Her mother, father, and sister all have different opinions of what to do. Her teachers and principal blindly punish her by labeling her a troublemaker. Her peers mock her mercilessly, provoke her to ritualize, and then get her in trouble for what they caused. As Phoebe starts to craft her own identity through the school's theater program, everyone else in her life begins to fall apart.
Two big factors hold this film together. The first is the visual design of the film. The real world the characters inhabit is dull. There's a constant presence of gray and lack of bright colors even while the school children play outside. The school's theater is more vibrant because Phoebe is comfortable there. The third level is beautiful. When Phoebe enters her fantasy world of Wonderland, the world comes alive. Cobblestones become paths of gold, the sky explodes in vibrant pops of blue and white, and larger than life representations of the Caterpillar, the Red Queen, and Alice herself appear to guide Phoebe through life.
The effects in the Wonderland sequence are gorgeous. One particularly strong moment sees Phoebe recreating the race with the Red Queen. They run in place as the revitalized world blurs around them. They'll have to go twice as fast to even begin to go anywhere and take in the scenery. The fantasy drops back into the--for the first time--clearly dull world when Phoebe's mother comes outside to find out what Phoebe's doing.
The second, and perhaps more essential, layer of glue for the film is Patricia Clarkson's performance as drama teacher Miss Dodger. It is remarkable what Clarkson brings out of a character that, on paper, probably read as a cliched wacky drama teacher. From her first moment popping into Phoebe's classroom with the first few lines of "Jabberwocky," leaving, then popping her head in to invite the children to the tea party, Clarkson finds the perfect balance between Phoebe's fantasy world and how arts teachers behave in real life. It's a character that easily could have just become the magical other that doesn't change. Clarkson avoids that trap.
Daniel Barnz does tip his hat towards foreshadowing a bit too often. One scene between Phoebe's mother and her therapist is horribly distracting. It reiterates information we were just given a few minutes before and creates an awkward and unwieldy subplot of denial and unfulfilled ambitions for Phoebe's mother. If the scene appeared at the end of the film, it would have flowed better.
Phoebe in Wonderland is filled with little moments that just don't quite work like that scene. They derail the momentum the film built to those points and always throw the balance too far into realism. If anything, Phoebe's story needed to be more fantasy-driven to demonstrate what triggers Phoebe's rituals and worsening condition. The reveal of Phoebe's actual condition at the end feels less authentic than it should because of the "this is important so we're saying it again" interludes in the film.
Daniel Barnz gets so much right in Phoebe in Wonderland that it's easy to overlook these moments. They might stop the film from being a masterpiece, but they do not drag down the intelligence, honesty, and style that define the film.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.