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  Phoebe in Wonderland

Starring: Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman

Directed by: Daniel Barnz

Produced by: Lynette Howell
Written by: Daniel Barnz

Distributor: ThinkFilm

     Watching Daniel Barnz’ Phoebe in Wonderland, all I could think about was how much more emotionally accessible and thought-provoking last year’s The Black Balloon, another film about a child with mental disabilities, was. Granted, the two pictures have different intentions and are told from different perspectives—the protagonist of Phoebe in Wonderland is the challenged girl herself, whereas in The Black Balloon it was the brother. But both deal with how families respond to disorders and contemplate what exactly constitutes social abnormality. I think my comparison is fair—albeit simply a stream-of-consciousness reaction I had when viewing—and it doesn’t bode well for the inferior Phoebe in Wonderland.

     Much of the reason Phoebe in Wonderland fails is that it reaches for the abstract in order to illustrate the central debate over whether title-character Phoebe (Elle Fanning) has Tourette syndrome or she’s just healthily different from the rest of her classmates. Frequently overindulging in Christophe Beck’s ultra-whimsical score and Phoebe’s dream-sequences inspired by Alice in Wonderland, the school play in which she is unexpectedly cast as lead by experimental drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson), writer/director Barnz disengages the viewer from the content. The creative over-stylization of the material meant to convey Phoebe’s emotions does nothing but work to convince the viewer of Phoebe’s mother’s (Felicity Huffman) view: she’s just an imaginary girl with obsessive tendencies, not one with a medical illness. Phoebe in Wonderland would have been more involving had it had been free of flourish and merely asked viewers to consider that central dilemma through realistic situations; instead, they have their minds made up for them and the exercise proves purposeless. Barnz may think his style shows the audience the film’s conflict as opposed to blankly telling it, but he’s really telling by showing.

     Barnz’ stylistic indulgences, the most obnoxious of which are meta references to the Alice in Wonderland that Phoebe embodies in real-life, also turn Phoebe into a rather annoying character. Whereas in The Black Balloon the autistic Charlie’s uncontrollable bad behavior was painstaking and thought-provoking because it was totally realistic, Phoebe’s inappropriate spitting and hurtful comments just seem irritating because they exist in a hopelessly pretentious attempt at edgy filmmaking, not a serious study of Tourettes. It’s not very long into Phoebe in Wonderland that the viewer realizes there isn’t a valid or effective point, and everything that follows proves an endurance-test. By comparison, The Black Balloon’s goal to observe how autism affects family dynamics was well-established from the get-go, therefore never leaving audiences any reason to question its artistic legitimacy.

     That Phoebe in Wonderland gets so bogged down in its approach is a real shame, because at its heart is a great performance by Elle Fanning (yes, that’s Dakota’s younger sister). Had the material surrounding what is by itself a credible depiction of a girl Tourettes been more compelling and real, then perhaps we’d be considering Fanning’s work come Oscar time. But the movie does not ring true as a whole—not even in its finale, in which the story completely changes tones and becomes a universal “overcome your fears” tale when Phoebe and her once-harsh classmates decide to execute their Alice in Wonderland despite Miss Dodger’s unfortunate school-mandated absence. Going into this review, I didn’t intend to make the above references to The Black Balloon, but what am I to do but recommend a superior similar work when I face the unfortunate task of deeming this noble-in-premise attempt little more than a boring example of artistic artifice?

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 3.6.2009

Screened on: 2.26.2009 at the Clarity Screening Room in Beverly Hills, CA.


Phoebe in Wonderland is rated PG-13 and runs 96 minutes.

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