It can be argued that one of the most crucial functions of the artist is to comfort, to provide emotional succor; The Odyssey was told around campfires lo these many eons ago not just to move the heart to admiration for Odysseus’ virtues but to provide a hale and hearty tale of derring-do to distract from whatever horrible fate might await the listener in battle the next day. A great deal of the bile justifiably heaped on Hollywood probably springs from how miserably its artists routinely fail on this score.
Despite the well-earned scorn routinely directed at the film industry for its lazy reliance on schlocky production, inert stereotypes, and brain-dead writing, filmmakers do occasionally create artistic achievements that provoke progressive thought and open the doors of social progress. Another important service, however, is the occasional production of good quality family dramas suitable for consumption across gender and age groups, films that simply lay out an enjoyable dramatic story and provide skilled, likeable actors to relate it, while at the same time tweaking our expectations a bit to keep things interesting.
Phoebe in Wonderland could be the poster child for that comforting breed. Phoebe doesn’t shift the tectonic plates of the cinematic landscape; it wasn’t on the radar for any significant Oscar nominations. It’s doubtful anyone will remember Phoebe a year from now, unless they happen to visit my not-at-all-creepy shrine to Patricia Clarkson. For the viewer seeking a well-acted, intensely intimate ensemble drama, however, Phoebe was one of the top candidates of 2008 and received far less attention than deserved from a world that routinely tolerates the likes of Then She Found Me.
First-time feature director Daniel Barnz, who also wrote the screenplay, delivers the tale of Phoebe (Elle Fanning), the precocious 10-year-old daughter of Hillary and Peter Lichten (Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman), married academic writers whose careers took dramatically divergent paths when Hillary took responsibility for caring for their family. The tension in their marriage, marked by Hillary’s increasing frustration and feelings of inadequacy over her stalled career, heightens as Phoebe begins to display an addled demeanor resulting from the onset of an mysterious mental malady. Initially Phoebe’s symptoms manifest as simple obsessive-compulsive habituations, such as her obsession with accurately counting the stones in the garden or her impatience with being interrupted at the task. As her symptoms worsen, however, she begins exhibiting physically and socially dangerous behaviors, such as her compulsion to jump certain numbers of stairs or to spit on an offensive classmate.
Aside from rendering Phoebe an outcast at school, her malady also strains her parents’ affection for her and exacerbates their marital tensions. The situation nears the breaking point until a critical influence enters Phoebe’s life: the new drama teacher at Phoebe’s school, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson). Phoebe desperately desires to play Alice in the school’s production of Alice in Wonderland, and Miss Dodger’s unusual expectations of her students and unconventional approach to teaching lead to Phoebe’s focusing her attention, dramatically reducing her symptoms. At the same time, Phoebe’s parents introduce her to a gentle teddy bear of a psychiatrist, Dr. Miles (Peter Gerety), who helps Phoebe cope with the frightening barrage of tics and quirks besetting her mind.
Despite the stable ground she finds with Miss Dodger, after a time Phoebe begins to experience mild hallucinations or dreams in which she interacts with characters from Alice in Wonderland, played in Phoebe’s dreams by the adults of her daily reality. (Gerety makes a wonderful Humpty Dumpty.) Her other symptoms begin to return as well, jeopardizing her ability to continue participating in the dramatic production. At the same time, Miss Dodger begins to run afoul of the school principal (Campbell Scott) over her frequent departures from the received (and flawed) wisdom of how teachers must handle schoolchildren.
The uneasy enchantment of Phoebe in Wonderland begins and ends with the remarkable relationship between Clarkson’s Miss Dodger and Fanning’s Phoebe. Phoebe showcases Clarkson’s luminous, other-worldly presence, from the highs of her empress-like command of her devoted students to the lows of having her fairy wings clipped by Scott’s plodding, earth-bound administrator. Clarkson delivers an actor’s clinic, finding tremendous range in the clichéd role of Uplifting Drama Teacher, first relying on the ethereal presence shown in countless supporting roles like her turn in The Green Mile, then re-visiting the sorrow and melancholy she so soulfully plumbed in The Station Agent.
In fairness, however, the film belongs to Fanning, who provides the perfect bookend for Clarkson on a shelf of wondrous fables. Fanning finds her footing from the first scene and captures Phoebe perfectly, a dazzling feat considering the complexities of portraying a person with a mild mental illness, a challenge even for a skilled adult actor. It helps tremendously that Phoebe’s condition is not played as a disease-of-the-week or mined for contrived occurrences to drive the narrative. Any number of childhood emotional or mental afflictions could stand in for Phoebe’s particular malady without detracting from the point that sometimes the brightest children require an immense amount of patience and fortitude to help them achieve their potential. Fanning convinces even the child-averse (ahem) that the potential of a child to astonish and delight is worth such forbearance.
Where Phoebe in Wonderland misses the occasional step is in the domestic drama that plays out in Phoebe’s home life. Huffman and Pullman work hard to breathe life into the frustrations that threaten their relationship, and Huffman in particular delivers several moving scenes as she struggles with regret over opportunities foregone and the horror that a mother feels upon experiencing dislike for her own special-needs daughter. The pacing drags badly in the domestic passages, however, especially in a stultifying middle act that belies the film’s svelte 96-minute run-time. Equally problematic, Huffman’s and Pullman’s confrontations are the stuff of melodrama, occasionally dragging Phoebe into Lifetime Movie of the Week territory, though their skill at projecting genuine hurt and painfully realistic passive-aggressive futility ultimately rescue these scenes.
Fortunately, the domestic interludes are generally brief, and the story is multi-faceted and full of delightful surprises, such as the moment when Miss Dodger deems it not only appropriate but desirable that an odd-but-committed boy should play a non-traditional role in the school production. The supporting cast is pitch-perfect, particularly Campbell Scott in the unsympathetic role of the principal, a career “educator” and stickler more interested in maintaining order than in the magical possibilities of occasionally letting children act as their own guides. The metaphor of Phoebe’s exploration of the great unknowns of life, as well as her spirited freedom to choose among her role models, drives the story into fascinating and uncharted territory and makes for a satisfying viewing experience. Films like Phoebe in Wonderland should be the rule for, not the exception to, the quality we expect from filmmakers.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phoebe in Wonderland / Ted Boynton
Film | March 9, 2009 | Comments ()