Let's get one thing clear: Making a film that authentically portrays a child's world is no easy task for American filmmakers. For my money, we are still awaiting the great American film about children dealing with their surroundings. Europeans, on the other hand, seem to do it with relative ease -- “The 400 Blows” and “Fanny and Alexander” may be the most celebrated, but last year's “Let The Right One In” shows yet again their superiority in this area. My hypothesis, as someone who knows very little about kids or parenting, would be that Americans' tendency to over-protect their children trickles over into film: Our filmmakers constrain their kids even as fictional characters. So, for setting out to make an “adult” children's drama in his first feature, writer-director Daniel Barnz should be granted a measure of respect.
Heavily leaning on Lewis Carroll's “Alice in Wonderland” as an inter-text, “Phoebe in Wonderland” tells the story of young outsider Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) and her attempts to channel her frustrations into her school's theatrical production of the aforementioned Carroll work, aided by quirky drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson). The film is set in an unnamed Northeastern college town, and Phoebe comes from a family of intellectuals who encourage her emotional freedom, even when it lands her into trouble at school. Her father Peter (Bill Pullman) and mother Hillary (Felicity Huffman) are both academics of some sort – Hillary, in fact, has been struggling to finish a book on (wait for it) “Alice in Wonderland.” As Phoebe descends into the emotional spiral of a burgeoning mental illness, she begins to confuse the reality of her everyday life with the unreality of Wonderland.
If this seems a little pat, there are certainly moments when it feels that way. But despite the seemingly crystalline structure, the film's real problem is its own uncertainty. Barnz hints and feints in several different directions, but never seems willing to commit to a consistent theme or aesthetic. Early on, it appears the film will deal with Phoebe's rebellion against the school bureaucracy as embodied by “Good Job, Jenny,” a made-up mascot of obedience. Yet a few scenes later, there's a shift suggesting it will tackle Hillary's conflicted feelings about giving up career for kids and the unintentional resentment this might cause in Phoebe: Here, Barnz gives us a nice jump cut from a pregnant Hillary to Phoebe innocently jumping on a crack to “break her mother's back.” The hopping, moreover, sets the foundation for Phoebe's mental illness, which proves to be the most central issue of the film, though it often feels relegated to the narrative outskirts.
While there is nothing necessarily wrong with multi-layered subtext, it clashes with the film's crafted and developed feel. Barnz exhibits some definite technical and narrative skills, and in a way it's frustrating that he does not make use of them throughout. He constantly shifts gears stylistically, oscillating from the frenetic pacing and visual saturation of a Terry Gilliam or Baz Luhrman to quiet domestic drama at a moment's notice. Given the talented cast, even the performances are a little disappointing, perhaps due to Barnz's background directing theater. During a scene in which Hillary confronts Miss Dodger, there is a long, silent pause that would likely suck the air out of the room in a live performance but falls flat here; it is a wasted opportunity in an on-screen pairing of two good actresses. As for Elle Fanning, Barnz initially tries to force her to be as precocious as her older sister, but that does not seem to be where her natural talents lie; she actually shows remarkable skill in conveying the more complicated emotional turns her character endures.
In the end, Barnz does try to answer the biggest question he sets up: At what point in an over-medicated culture do we decide whether to let our children simply be free or get them medical help? The answer, apparently, is when they suffer from an actual mental illness, though this seems like dodging the complexities that could arise from a serious debate. The final scene, in which Phoebe explains her disorder to the class, feels like an after-school special and probably could have used a heavy dose of camp. However, it is obviously a sensitive issue for anyone who has ever dealt with mental illness first- or second-hand, and therefore understandable Barnz feels the need to play it straight. Then again, oversensitivity might just be another symptom of our national inability to realistically depict our children on-screen.