Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Phoebe in Wonderland

This was on the schedule for last year's Independent Film Festival of Boston, and I'm not sure why I missed it. Something, I'm sure, to do with getting out of work on time and thinking, hey, a movie with this cast will play Boston eventually.

(Son of a bitch - I missed this for Vexille? Ugh!)

It's a pretty good movie, worth checking out if it hangs around another weekend.

Phoebe in Wonderland

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2009 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

I really hope the Fanning kids are getting better advice and guidance than other people whose names come to mind at the mention of the phrase "child star". Not just because they're kids, and what sort of monster doesn't want the best for children, but for selfish reasons - I'd like to watch them work for a good long time. And as good an actress as Dakota Fanning has shown herself to be, younger sister Elle is making a name for herself beyond playing Dakota's character in flashbacks. Of course, even if everything else is ideal, one still has to hope that their talent doesn't come with strings attached, as it does for Elle's character in this film.

Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) is a bright and imaginative girl of nine. She loves Lewis Carroll, smiling when new drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) recites a bit of "Jabberwocky" that confuses her classmates. Phoebe she inherited from her mother Hilary (Felicity Huffman), who is trying to expand her graduate thesis on Alice in Wonderland into a book, although watching two kids like Phoebe and seven-year-old Olivia (Bailee Madison) takes all of her attention. When Principal Davis (Campbell Scott) calls Hilary and her husband Peter (Bill Pullman) in for a conference after Phoebe spits in another students face during a game of tag, Hilary initially dismisses it as no big deal - kids sometimes do stuff like that. It's not long, though, before it becomes clear that as brilliant as Phoebe is proving to be in rehearsals for Miss Dodger's production of Alice in Wonderland, she is having real problems elsewhere.

Filmmaker Daniel Barnz cheats just a little bit in letting us see how good Elle Fanning's performance is, by giving Phoebe a sister who is, perhaps, an example of how gifted children can annoy moviegoers. Not that Bailee Madison is bad as Olivia, but she's the kind of little girl that claims to have "angst" at the age of seven and goes trick or treating as Karl Marx. Next to her, Phoebe doesn't seem like such a weird kid, which makes the encroaching mental illness all the more horrifying. There's a regular kid underneath Phoebe's tics and compulsions, and Fanning never gives the impression that there's anything fun about that sort of thing coming out. She's actually good enough that Barnz could have backed off a bit in the script; Phoebe explains what she's feeling several times, but it's something we can see as it comes over her.

Felicity Huffman gets a pretty interesting character to play, as well. Hilary thinks of herself as a writer or academic rather than a stay-at-home mom, sometimes resenting that this may not actually represent the reality of the situation. Huffman manages to make Hilary both very warm and rather prickly; we see how she views any complaint about her kids as an attack on her, personally, but is not egotistical about it. The dilemma her character faces is that she's got very definite ideas about what is good for children, but Phoebe makes her ideals incomplete, though probably not wrong.

Huffman and Fanning are wonderful enough that some of the other performances look less than impressive in comparison. The men in the film are somewhat rough, for instance: Bill Pullman is often forced into the devil's advocate role, not exactly giving a lot of individual personality to a character whose main job is to disagree with Hilary. Campbell Scott plays the worst elementary school principal ever, the type that always talks in the passive voice, avoids taking any sort of action or responsibility, and seems frightfully ill-prepared for dealing with something as unpredictable as a school full of 6-11-year-old children. Credit to Ian Colletti, though, as he makes Phoebe's best friend (a boy who collects Patriot Dolls, wants to play the Red Queen in the play, and has a headshot and resumé ready at his audition) someone we can take seriously, rather than a bizarre stereotype like the gay kid in School of Rock. Patricia Clarkson seems under-utilized, though, playing the weird, New Age-y theater teacher.

It's easy to see what attracted them all to the screenplay, though - every one of these characters (well, aside from the principal) gets a big, meaty speech to call their own. They may be obvious summations of character or more eloquent than what even these very intelligent characters would say without a script, but they're good words given good readings. Pullman and Huffman articulate shame and uncertainty well, and the matter-of-fact way Fanning explains her illness to her classmates and answers their questions is both hopeful and tragic. Barnz's writing and direction has weaknesses - strawmen like Principal Davis, false dangers, and tendencies to wander or repeat himself - but he's got a couple of neat tricks up his sleeve, like getting us to like Phoebe, Hilary, and Miss Dodger for how they push against rigidity before making us wonder when it might become dangerous.

Phoebe in Wonderland is a little rough at times, especially when it strays too far from Phoebe's specific illness and how it affects those around her. But it's got a pretty good handle on kids and perhaps an even better one on parents, especially when Elle Fanning or Felicity Huffman is on-screen.

Also at EFC.

No comments: