It’s frustrating to see a movie come close to articulating something specific and important about being the parent of a special-needs child—or any child, really—and then retreat into broad strokes, out of fear of losing the audience. Daniel Barnz’s Phoebe In Wonderland confronts the complications of progressive child-rearing head-on in its first hour, presenting a problem that looks unsolvable. Then Barnz scrambles to reassure everyone that good hearts and good intentions can make everything okay. Yet for all its cop-outs, Phoebe still trumps the “how to be a better person” hoo-hah of so many middlebrow dramas, if only because the problems it depicts are real, not overcooked reactions to trumped-up traumas.
Elle Fanning stars as a precocious 11-year-old with some sort of obvious social disorder. (The movie withholds the final diagnosis until the final 10 minutes.) When touchy-feely drama teacher Patricia Clarkson casts Fanning as Alice in a school production of Alice In Wonderland, Fanning finally finds something to focus on, even as her behavior outside of the play becomes more erratic, worrying her academic parents, Bill Pullman and Felicity Huffman. Huffman’s reactions to her problematic daughter drive what Phoebe In Wonderland is really about: Huffman is an educated woman who believes that “kids should be kids,” and doesn’t know how to reconcile her New Age-y parenting philosophies with the very real possibility that her child may need medication or therapy (if only to shut her up long enough for Huffman to finish turning her dissertation into a book).
Unfortunately, Huffman deals with her dissatisfaction by delivering a few heavy-handed speeches to Pullman, and Barnz accentuates Fanning and Clarkson’s “specialness” by setting them against a backdrop of officious edu-crats. The excessive orderliness and doublespeak of Fanning’s teachers, therapist, and principal is meant as a riff on Lewis Carroll, but mainly it detracts from the legitimately harrowing scenes of Fanning washing her hands until they bleed, or walking up and down steps while counting an elaborate pattern. There’s too much “problem, solution” to Phoebe, although the movie’s anxieties are believable enough to earns the moments of uplift. The film may be too concerned with being a crowd-pleaser, but it least it makes the crowd suffer a little along the way.