November 26, 2009

MOVIES: Phoebe in Wonderland (Daniel Barnz, 2009)

Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is 9, and is beginning to misbehave and act out in disturbing ways. She spits at classmates; she washes her hands until they're raw -- and those are just the visible signs. She's also having fantasies in which the characters from Alice in Wonderland appear to give her advice.

There's always been a lot of Wonderland in Phoebe's life. Her mother (Felicity Huffman) is still struggling to finish a scholarly book on Alice, and she's so fascinated with the story that her birthday present is an elaborate handmade diorama based on the story.

It's not surprising, therefore, when she lands the lead role in the school production of Alice, directed by the free-spirited drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson). But as good as she is in the role, it seems to be exacerbating her problems; the inappropriate behavior becomes more common, as do the Alice fantasies.

Barnz' movie (he's also the screenwriter) can't quite make up its mind whether it wants to be a whimsical fantasy about the importance of individuality or a more somber study of how difficult it can be to parent (and teach) a disturbed child. In the latter mode, it comes perilously close to a disease-of-the-week TV movie; one wonders if the presence of Lifetime as one of the movie's producers has anything to do with that.

The cast is also uneven, with most of the problems coming from the men. Bill Pullman's ineffectual dithering as Phoebe's father quickly grows annoying, and Campbell Scott gives an unusually bland performance as an elementary-school principal. The women, on the other hand, are marvelous. Fanning is marvelous as Phoebe, and it's painful to watch her struggle against the behavior that she clearly knows is wrong, but can't control. Huffman's Hilary has her own struggles to deal with; she clearly loves her children, but is also sometimes frustrated by the demands they place on her. (Barnz saddles her with a speech in which she expresses that frustration far more cleanly and concisely than any mother ever could.)

But the finest performance comes from Patricia Clarkson, who is luminous as Miss Dodger. It's a role that could have easily plummeted into cliche -- has there ever been a drama teacher in the movies who wasn't an inspirational free spirit? -- but Clarkson finds novel touches, bringing to life both Miss Dodger's joy at bringing creativity to life and her horror when she realizes the ways in which her encouragement has inadvertently pushed all of the wrong buttons in Phoebe.

There are moments and characters of dull predictability here -- Phoebe's best friend is a boy who wants to play the Queen of Hearts, leading to the inevitable gay-bashing and well-meaning (but somewhat condescending) lecture -- but there are also moments of incredible beauty, such as a lovely conversation between Phoebe and Miss Dodger as they sit on the catwalk above the theater.

Not a perfect movie by any stretch, and the ending feels awfully abrupt, but the moments and performances that work outweigh those that don't, and Clarkson's lovely, delicate work tips the balance, leading me to tell you that the movie is well worth renting.

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