Being a kid today has got to be tough. Being a kid with an insatiable creative appetite and a slight case of obsessive compulsive disorder has got to be even tougher. That’s what Phoebe (played by 11-year-old Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister) has to go through in Phoebe in Wonderland, the newest film from director Daniel Barnz.
The film establishes early Phoebe’s unassailable creativity. She’s the Tortured Artist-albeit a kid version-who is alienated from her classmates for being “different” and feels confined by her school’s suppressive methods. She is even put into therapy after her OCD goes a little too far, but again becomes restless within its confines. Her home life isn’t any easier; both parents are writers who, trying to get published, struggle to find time to connect with Phoebe and their other daughter, who becomes jealous of the attention Phoebe gets because of her tendency to lash out.
But then, a mysterious new drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) is hired at her school and stages a production of “Alice in Wonderland.” Phoebe, her curiosity peaked by the teacher and the chance of living in the magical world of Wonderland for real, tries out and lands the lead over the other girls whose self entitlement contrasts clearly with Phoebe’s unassuming self confidence.
The drama teacher, rather than simply telling the young thespians what to do, lets them do it for themselves, thereby giving them the power they lack in the classroom. Phoebe thrives in this environment, letting her imagination run wild. She daydreams about dancing with characters from “Alice in Wonderland,” which eventually gets her into some trouble-the consequences of which lay the groundwork for the rest of the film.
This is Fanning’s first true role (she has played the younger version of her sister in a few movies and had a small part in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and she shines brightly in it. Her ability to look adorable while also transmitting a healthy dose of angst usually reserved for teenaged emo kids makes this film work. It doesn’t hurt that there is a strong supporting cast of adults around her: Bill Pullman and Felicity Huffman as the conflicted writer-parents create the environment in which Phoebe stews, and Patricia Clarkson offers the tender maternal love that Phoebe needs.
Phoebe in Wonderland could be a close sibling of Danny Boyle’s whimsical child-driven fable Millions. There are lessons to be learned by both the adults and the children, but it is ultimately the children-especially Phoebe-in this film who know how to live a life worth living; one led by imagination rather than inhibition.