Phoebe in Wonderland
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Phoebe in Wonderland

There is an apparent disconnect between societal values and elementary school education. As a culture we laude the individual icons of those who dare to break away from the common crowd. This would seem to be in direct opposition to what many educators drill into their student; the importance to fit in with their peers. Sometimes this oppositional dynamic manifests as some form of psychological or emotional dysfunction. This often lends itself to being utilized as the basis for storytelling. There are many contributing factors for the success of emotional problems as the foundation of a story. First and perhaps most pertinent; it is relatable to all members of the audience. These disorders strike across all social, ethnic and economic boundaries. It could happen to any of us. Next it provides the basis for drama with just the right touch of humor. Some of the most notable performances have dealt with these issues. There is also an incredible variety of home these issues can manifest ranging from psychosis to genius. There is an inherent isolation to being the especially bright kid in school that translates well to a more universal form of social isolation. In those pre-teen years it is difficult to feel at ease with a group. The smart kid is intellectually above her peers but not on equal footing with adults. This situation is at the heart of the movie ‘Phoebe in Wonderland’. This is a quintessential independent movie; it is a quiet little story that has its share of missteps but does provide a platform for some brilliant performances. It was obviously not done as a project to turn a profit but rather fully comes across as a true labor of love for all involved. Thankfully Image Entertainment’s Indy division, ThinkFilms, has released this little gem to DVD. This is an entertaining movie especially suited to those into movies off the beaten track.

The film is the freshman effort as both writer and director for this rising auerture Daniel Barnz. Due and proper credit must be afforded to him for his willingness to forgo the typical easy route if a mindless horror flick and crafting an interesting character driven story. At the center of the tale is Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning), a precocious n year old girl who prefers the wonderful fantasy world of her own design to anything that reality could offer. This naturally becomes a source of concern for Phoebe’s teachers who just don’t appreciate her inquisitive mind and constant questions. It should come as no surprise that her favorite work of fiction is Lewis Carroll's ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The adults in Phoebe’s life just seem to add to her conflict. Her parents, Hillary (Felicity Huffman) and Peter (Bill Pullman) are both overly involved with their careers as authors. Mom is even busy writing a lofty book on Wonderland. At school the girl is a constant source of consternation for Principal Davis (Campbell Scott). There is a glimmer of hope for the child when her teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson, mounts a production of Carroll’s ‘Jump’. This seems like the ideal way to ‘properly’ redirect her worrisome behavior. More than that Miss Dodger is the rare adult who retained that sense of wonderment with the world and encourages Phoebe’s near constant torrent of queries.

Much of the film chronicles Phoebe as she auditions for the lead role, rehearses and finally prepares for the performance. It is in this second act that the juxtaposition on Phoebe’s two, divergent environments, home and school, is used to its most effective use. Her parents are progressive, liberal and members of the intellectual elite. They want their children to flourish and soar above regular kids. Phoebe is caught between that freedom and the homogenizing effect of an overburdened educational system. The story is well founded with plot devices that are common to the human experience. As Phoebe begins to expand her vistas her mother has to cope with separation anxiety. All parents go through this as we as parents are supplanted as the child’s primary influence.

This is a good example of independent film. It relies on talent both behind and before the camera instead of gimmicks and special effects. In this case the story is character drive which puts the demands squarely on the cast. Fortunately, this one is more than up to the challenge. In the titular role is Elle Fanning, continuing the family tradition started by slightly older sister, Dakota. Here she cements her position as one of the brightest young stars with a command of the material that is simply incredible to watch. She take a character that with less talent have come across as mundane but with Ms Fanning we get a poignant, gentle portrayal of a pretty, bright and ultimately confused little girl. It is certain her amazing control will only further her range and control. To this end she is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast. As her mother Felicity Huffman once again demonstrates why she is one of the most sought after actresses in the independent film world. She offers a nuanced presentation that is a delight. Giving just the right counter point is Bill Pullman playing her husband. Helping to round out the adults in the film is Patricia Clarkson as the ever hopeful Miss Dodger. Too often in a film featuring an upcoming child star the grown up roles are superfluous but not here. This is a hard working ensemble cast that creates a true synergy translating to a delightful experience.

There are faults here but all can be forgiven. This is a film that is well worthwhile and will providing a touching evening of entertainment.

Posted 06/20/09

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