Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On DVD: "Phoebe in Wonderland"

Daniel Barnz’s Phoebe in Wonderland is such a melancholy wisp of a movie that you might not realize how quietly effective it is. The picture has an odd, unique, delicate tone; it doesn’t push for effects and seldom raises its voice. Moody and subtle, it is certainly more understated than you would expect from a film that includes, in its opening credits, the words “A Lifetime Pictures presentation.”

Elle Fanning (yes, Dakota’s little sister) stars as Phoebe Lichten, a nine-year-old girl with a seemingly idyllic life; she inhabits a comfortable rustic home with her sister and her parents (Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman), intellectual writers who dote on their little girls. But something’s not quite right with little Phoebe; she reacts badly to rules and authority, and seems to have early symptoms of OCD. However, she is fascinated by her school’s new drama teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson); Phoebe auditions for the class production of “Alice in Wonderland” and finds her neurosis intertwining with the themes and ideas of the Carroll classic.

Like other modern takes on the Alice story (such as Terry Gilliam’s problematic, challenging Tideland), Phoebe in Wonderland seems pitched to an indeterminate audience—it is, seemingly, too sad and disturbing for kids, but teens and adults are seldom drawn to films focused on children. Its inability to connect to the public-at-large during its brief, limited theatrical run last March will hopefully rectify itself on video, where hard-to-buttonhole pictures like this one tend to eventually make their way to appreciative audiences. In spite of its Lifetime pedigree and disease-of-the-week subject matter, its young protagonist and its female-heavy cast, this is neither an issue-tackling TV movie nor a “chick flick” nor a “kid’s movie.” It is an observant, thoughtful film about a real girl with real problems.

Which is not to imply that it’s a downer, either; there is a quiet magic, for example, in the theatrical scenes, which are given a considerable lift by Clarkson’s slyly understated performance. It’s kind of daring, how little “acting” she does here; it’s a turn that is more about her presence and the indefinably hardy way that she carries herself and delivers her dialogue. Felicity Huffman doesn’t fare quite as well; she occasionally falls back on shrillness (one of the few ineffective weapons in her acting arsenal), and her big speech to Phoebe’s shrink feels too much like a big speech—there’s no lead-in and no run-up to it, and the slow, dramatically dollying camera is one of the few instances where Barnz tips his directorial hand too obviously.

However, Huffman is exceptional in the family scenes, and she is well-matched by Pullman as the pained, ineffective father (the tender scene in which he apologizes to Phoebe is one of the finest pieces of acting he’s yet done). Their marriage is believably lived-in, their exasperations with each other barely concealed, though Barnz muffs their big confrontation scene by not seeming to know where to put the camera (and therefore falling back on the unfortunately standard first-time director solution: going handheld). That complaint aside, the vitally important family scenes work well because the parents and daughters look, act, and feel like a real family.

And Fanning’s work, which is the centerpiece of the film (in spite of Huffman’s top billing), is somewhere in the vicinity of brilliant. Her tremendous, open face always lets you see her mind working, and there’s a naturalism to her line readings that is quite good. Her showcase sequence comes up out of nowhere, a difficult, raw scene in which she cries and screams to her mother in the middle of the night; it’s a tough, heartbreaking piece of work, but grows organically from her remarkable performance.

Phoebe in Wonderland has some structural difficulties and a few unfortunately thin characters (like Campbell Scott’s school principal), while the film’s deliberate pace and subdued style won’t endear it to all audiences. But for a debut feature film, it shows a markedly confident sense of tone and texture, and some of these performances are just astonishing. Don’t let the film’s low profile and peculiar storyline deter you; when it’s working, it’s doing something really special.

"Phoebe in Wonderland" is currently available on DVD.

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