Felicity Huffman may headline Phoebe in Wonderland, but the film’s scene stealer is the actress portraying the title character. Elle Fanning is a revelation as Phoebe, a conflicted and troubled young girl whose parents – including Huffman as her mom and Bill Pullman as her dad – desperately try to discern what is troubling their child.
A prized Phoebe
Fanning is famously the sister of another dazzling young actress, Dakota. Much as her sister has shown in a half-dozen films, Elle is commanding in her complete inhabiting of Phoebe.
Phoebe is simultaneously troubled and inspired by visions. Her ability to cope begins to unravel as she becomes part of a school play – Alice in Wonderland.
As her parents struggle to find ways to alleviate Phoebe’s issues, Alice in Wonderland’s director, the school’s drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) finds ways into Phoebe’s heart and mind that her parents cannot. By tapping her imagination and encouraging its exploration, Phoebe finds her voice on the make believe world of the stage. In the process of portraying Alice, she begins to heal herself and her parents’ painful journey.
It is in this pained parent mode that Huffman shines. The actress has exposed a wide range of emotions over her career — even solely on Desperate Housewives — but none as focused and fierce as her portrayal of a parent navigating the maze of trying to help a child’s affliction.
One scene in particular I hope Academy members recall when considering actresses to nominate in 2009, Huffman struggling with Phoebe’s therapist. It is as riveting an expose of a parental meltdown of concern as an actress has captured in this year.
Drama within drama
As the drama teacher with the Midas touch in Phoebe in Wonderland, Patricia Clarkson is subtly brilliant in her portrayal of an instructor who is seeking to shake and rattle her students out of their force-fed world of video games and internet cartoons into a world solely created with their imagination.
Fanning is a find
Fanning, much like her sister Dakota, is a fine actress. Witnessing her in Phoebe in Wonderland is an acting clinic. Audiences have to remember that we are witnessing a child whose years of performing experience is limited by the reality of her recent birth.
Phoebe in Wonderland would have no wonder without Fanning and her effervescent thespian gifts. This Wonderland is a rabbit hole worth going down if the drama in family drama does not normally overwhelm your film appreciation experience. Watching Fanning as Phoebe will be remembered as a moment mirroring when audiences were introduced to Jodie Foster decades ago.
There are moments throughout the film where Fanning and Huffman’s dialogue seem overly dramatic. But, it is not the fault of the actresses. They do the most with what they are given in those scenes. Unfortunately, if the over-dramatic bothers, Phoebe will bother. But, there are millions who are products of households dealing with issues as varied as children with disabilities to parents with emotional concerns of their own. It is in that capacity that these scenes are easier to swallow for some than others.
Overall though, the script is tight in all other capacities and reflects the wonder paralleled in the Lewis Caroll story that sits at the heart of Phoebe in Wonderland and the little girl’s effort to make sense out of a world that makes absolutely no sense at all.