While “Phoebe in Wonderland” traverses slightly familiar ground — it’s a young-girl-cracks-up movie in the mode of “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” crossed with a theater vs. reality subtext that feels like A Child’s First “Synecdoche, New York” — it remains consistently exciting and unpredictable.
First-time writer-director Daniel Barnz makes everything work, from the performances of his first-rate cast to the film’s lush and lived-in look to the screenplay’s sharp observations about parenting, education and emotional fragility.
Young Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is the older of two daughters who are doted upon by their parents, Hillary (Felicity Huffman) and Peter (Bill Pullman). Both Hillary and Peter are academics, but while he’s been publishing, she’s been taking care of the kids and the house and neglecting her thesis work on “Alice in Wonderland.”
As fate would have it, Phoebe is cast as Alice in a school production based on that very novel. Or, I should say, “as events would have it,” because as Phoebe’s gloriously eccentric drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) points out, “I don’t believe in fate.”
Even though Phoebe is loved at home and has a good friend in Jamie (Ian Colletti), a young boy who has the stones to audition for — and to be cast as — the Red Queen in the show, she nonetheless begins exhibiting odd behavior, from obsessively counting steps to jumping up and down the stairs to spitting on other students whenever she’s riled.
But “Phoebe in Wonderland” has too many cards in its deck to be nothing more than a “little girl with a mental problem” movie. Phoebe’s condition brings out the true colors of the adults around her; Hillary blames herself for everything and makes some very frank admissions to Peter regarding her feelings about motherhood, while Peter blurts out to Phoebe that he couldn’t handle another child like her.
At school, meanwhile, Miss Dodger champions Phoebe’s independence and strong spirit while the hopelessly slot-A-into-tab-B principal (Campbell Scott) just wants to medicate and punish the problem away.
We’ve seen so many stories about special kids and their parents and teachers over the years, which makes Barnz’s capable handling of this material a miracle akin to tangoing through a minefield.
Fanning wisely strips away any notion of cuteness or precociousness to make Phoebe feel genuine and fascinating and vulnerable. Huffman and Clarkson do some of the finest work of their extraordinary careers, and Pullman reminds us how capable and multi-faceted a performer he can be.
Also on their game are cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (“Saved!”) and production designer Thérèse DePrez (“Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) for making the film’s two Wonderlands — the one onstage at Phoebe’s school and the one unfolding in her troubled mind — feel so vividly alive. Barnz’s ability to do likewise in his first feature film bodes well for this rising screen artist.