Fri, Apr 02, 2010 - Page 16 News List

FILM REVIEW: We are who we are

‘Phoebe in Wonderland’ sensitively probes the perils of parenthood and how kids learn to live with each other

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

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In a week overloaded with releases for children, the small three-feature festival at SPOT titled Children and the World Film Festival might easily get overlooked given both its size and also the rather peculiar selection of its lineup.

This would be a pity if it means missing out on Phoebe in Wonderland, which is packaged together with Small Voices (2008), a documentary that follows the lives of post-Khmer Rouge Cambodian children struggling to survive on the aid of the Cambodian Children’s Fund, and 8, a portmanteau movie with segments by eight directors (including heavy hitters such

as Jane Campion, Gus van Sant and Wim Wenders) to address aspects of the G8 Millennium Development Goals.

The latter two films both have clearly defined political agendas that are obvious from the moment the projector starts to roll. Phoebe in Wonderland is a mainstream feature film, which might be described as drama or quirky comedy, but it also deals specifically with an “issue,” Tourette’s syndrome, which is the reason it has been included in a program with a social agenda.

In the case of Phoebe in Wonderland, this somewhat over-developed concern with social relevance mars what is otherwise a delightful and thought-provoking little film that provides sensitive portraits of parents learning about living with children, and children learning to live with each other.

Phoebe is a little girl with a highly developed fantasy life and some issues with self-control. She is played by Elle Fanning, Dakota Fanning’s younger sister, who gives the role considerable depth with a mix of assurance and vulnerability. Phoebe is a lovely child, but one not without rough edges.

FILM NOTES

PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND

DIRECTED BY:

DANIEL BARNZ

STARRING:

FELICITY HUFFMAN (HILLARY LICHTEN), ELLE FANNING (PHOEBE LICHTEN), PATRICIA CLARKSON (MISS DODGER), BILL PULLMAN (PETER LICHTEN), BAILEE MADISON (OLIVIA LICHTEN), CAMPBELL SCOTT (PRINCIPAL DAVIS), IAN COLLETTI (JAMIE)

RUNNING TIME:

96 MINUTES

TAIWAN RELEASE:

TODAY


It is these rough edges that make life so hard for her intensely caring parents. Felicity Huffman puts in a super performance

as the committed, informed yet at times clueless mother, caught

in the clutches of the almost schizophrenic demands of

modern parenting.

The tensions between discipline and creativity, freedom and willfulness, are well portrayed, both from a child’s and an adult’s point of view.

Phoebe’s problems are partially resolved when she throws herself into the school play, Alice in Wonderland, which is being produced by the school’s drama teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson), an adult who is sensitive to the needs of children but is not beyond being misled by them either. The stage play, and the assumption of various Wonderland characters by parents, teachers and of course the attending psychologist who is brought in to treat Phoebe (who appears occasionally as Humpty Dumpty), provide an absurdist gloss on the action.

Fanning holds things together in a demanding role, revealing the emotional turmoil of childhood without hogging the action and serving as a sounding board for a variety of adult responses to her behavior. Another child actor who does a star turn is Ian Colletti, who plays Jamie, the boy who wants to play the Queen of Hearts. The gay issue is touched on lightly, with just enough to simply say that we must be who we are.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers do not seem confident enough to avoid labeling Phoebe’s condition, which emerges as Tourette’s syndrome. The subtle dance of ideas that the film raised at the beginning grinds to a standstill, which is a thoroughly unsatisfactory way of tying off the story. It’s almost as if three-quarters of the way through making the film, the director thought he might not have got his point across, and suddenly had to reach for the loud-hailer.

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