Strong performances lift ‘Phoebe in Wonderland’

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, March 5, 2009 5:51pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The hype machine makes it difficult, but there’s a lot to be said for not knowing much about a movie before you see it.

I’m glad I didn’t know much about “Phoebe in Wonderland” going into it, because this modest picture would have unfolded in a very different way if I had. It’s enough to say that the movie is about a little girl who is different, and leave the specifics at that.

She is Phoebe (played by Elle Fanning), a kid who finally finds her real voice in the theater program at school. Her eccentric drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) is putting on “Alice in Wonderland,” and Phoebe has the lead part written all over her.

The film follows Phoebe’s experiences in the play, as well as her parents’ increasing frustration about why she’s so unusual.

Elements of fantasy enter into Phoebe’s world, as she “sees” characters from “Alice” around her and has a tendency to retreat into her own world.

Clarkson’s teacher isn’t part of that fantasy, although she seems entirely made up by writer-director Daniel Barnz. The teacher (who is first seen poking her head into a classroom and reciting a few lines of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”) has a wiggy approach, allowing the kids in the play to do their own staging.

I don’t think this person ever really existed, but if she did, she was the most annoying drama teacher ever. Clarkson does what she can with the role.

Bill Pullman plays Phoebe’s father, and Campbell Scott gives a fussy and amusing performance as the school’s principal, who is not at all amused about the play.

First-time director Barnz has a fairly heavy hand; for instance, incorporating “Swan Lake” into the story so that we realize this is a story of transformation. Two casting decisions, however, elevate the movie into better-than-average range.

Elle Fanning, the younger sister of Dakota Fanning, carries on the family tradition of preternatural talent. There’s a spooky touch of the uncanny about her performance, which fits the character perfectly.

And Felicity Huffman is exceptionally good as Phoebe’s mother. Huffman (whose employment on “Desperate Housewives” is akin to Robert De Niro spending five years on “Starsky and Hutch”) creates a smart, difficult character who means well but isn’t always right.

It’s a truly grown-up conception of a parent, and it lifts the movie out of the Afternoon Special school of social-issue pictures.

“Phoebe in Wonderland”

A somewhat heavy-handed look at a “different” child is elevated by two exceptional performances: Elle Fanning as the little girl, and Felicity Huffman as her smart, well-meaning, not always right mother. Most of the story concerns a school production of “Alice in Wonderland” — thus the title.

Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing: Varsity

Talk to us

More in Life

Josh Haazard Stands inside his workspace, the HaazLab, where he creates a variety of cosplay props and other creative gadgets, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, at his home in Monroe, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
This contraption crafter turns junk into sci-fi weaponry

Joshamee “The Chief” Haazard is a costume prop maker in Monroe. He transforms trash into treasure.

Shawn McQuiller of Kool & The Gang performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, on Sunday, May 8, 2022, in New Orleans. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Kool & The Gang and Average White Band are coming soon to a casino near you. Queensryche also is due in Arlington.

For your kids’ sake, stress less about their grades this school year

Don’t make a big deal over grades. Instead, encourage out-of-classroom activities and remember, learning is supposed to be fun.

At the prehistoric fortress of Dun Aengus, the dramatic west cliffs of Ireland meet the turbulent sea as Europe comes to an abrupt end. (Rick Steves' Europe)
Enjoy the simple life on Ireland’s starkly beautiful Aran Islands

Three limestone islands make up the Aran Islands: Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer.

American Queen changes COVID protocols; can I get a refund?

fter American Queen changes its COVID protocols, Patricia Voorhees Furlong and her husband want to skip their river cruise. Is that allowed? Or, will they lose out on $7,858?

Preston Brust, left, and Chris Lucas of LOCASH perform during CMA Fest 2022 on Thursday, June 8, 2022, at the Chevy Riverfront Stage in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

The country music duo Locash drops by the Angel of the Winds Casino on Saturday. And there’s the Summer Meltdown festival at its new home near Snohomish all weekend.

‘Poco Orange’ Red Hot Poker. (Terra Nova Nurseries)
Warmer weather means brighter, hotter colors in the garden

Here are seven plants that will bring a blazing pop of color to your outdoor spaces.

The 2022 Lexus GX has a 301-horsepower V8 engine, six-speed automatic transmission, and full time all-wheel drive. (Lexus)
Updated 2022 Lexus GX 460 expands list of standard features

Navigation and a 10.3-inch multimedia system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are included.

Bruce Johnson has an exhibit on the history of clowns at the Lynnwood Library in Lynnwood, Washington on August 11, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Clown historian takes the funny business very seriously

Bruce Johnson, a.k.a “Charlie the Juggling Clown,” wants to pass his craft down to future generations.

Most Read