Phoebe in Wonderland successfully captures the rich inner life of a bright child in a story cast in the golden light of nostalgia, but burdens the story with questions of neurosis and unformed adult anxieties.
Phoebe’s (Elle Fanning) beaming face is the focus of the story, which follows her as she navigates different worlds: the close darkness of her home in the company of her loving academic parents (Bill Pullman and Felicity Huffman) and madcap younger sister (Bailee Madison in a thunder-stealing turn); the dull, rule-bound classroom, where she jarringly states that the class mascot ‘Good Job Jenny’ “deserves to die a slow and painful death”; the vast sunlit space of the stage under the tutelage of her sympathetic drama teacher, who accepts Phoebe to play the lead in the school’s production of Alice in Wonderland; and finally her own dreamlike Wonderland, which sometimes opens up before her, peopled by parents, teachers and the child psychologist of her daily life, in the guises of Lewis Carroll’s characters.
The film is most enjoyable when it leaves Phoebe alone, as when she marvels at the tangled, sparkly Alice-themed play set given as a gift to her by her parents, or discusses life’s harder questions with her drama teacher in the bleak darkness above the empty stage. However, conflict feels artificially introduced when her odd habits and quirks — spitting at the schoolchildren who tease her — wind her up in front of the principal and psychologist who don’t ‘get’ her, and worry her long-suffering parents to death.
A late scene in which she holds a formal Q&A session with her class about her behavior is perfunctory and unconvincing, but her effort to inspire the other child actors to bring the Alice play to life works well, dramatically. (Whether their play converts the “awful normals” in the audience is left unresolved.) In the end, the moments of whimsy in Phoebe in Wonderland are a pleasure to watch, and recommend the film, especially for mature younger viewers.