Think of "Phoebe in Wonderland" as "A Beautiful Mind," only for kids. And with Elle Fanning, Dakota's little sister, in the Russell Crowe role of the gifted outsider, tormented by demons within.
I'm not saying that this movie is as good as that 2001 multiple Oscar winner. Ultimately, it gets bogged down in its own earnestness and made-for-TV melodrama. But Fanning's performance stands up to Crowe's portrayal of mentally ill mathematician John Nash. As the title character -- a troubled 9-year-old who finds refuge from the growing sense that she's not like other children by playing Alice for a school production of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" -- the young actress shines (see MovieMakers interview on the previous page).
Which makes it all the more disappointing that the material she has to work with is so lackluster.
At first, Phoebe seems like she might merely be one of those "sensitive and imaginative" children that her mother (Felicity Huffman) keeps insisting she is. Phoebe's only friend is an equally persecuted boy who collects dolls and wants to play the Queen of Hearts when the school's drama teacher, Miss Dodger (a creepily intense Patricia Clarkson), mounts a musical adaptation of "Wonderland."
Phoebe's free-spirited behavioral quirks soon worsen. She displays signs that look like obsessive-compulsive disorder and has verbal outbursts that she can't control. It takes getting kicked out of the school play before everyone realizes that something more is going on here than artistic temperament run amok.
Half of the time, the movie seems to advocate that Phoebe should be left to her own wacky devices. The other half of the time, the movie feels like a plea for greater understanding about a much-maligned medical condition.
All of that may have you thinking: These are my choices? A let-your-freak-flag-fly rallying cry about the way the Man's rules stifle the creativity of the Child? Or, on the other hand, a Hallmark Hall of Fame-style examination of a misunderstood malady (the only thing missing an 800 number to call, after the credits, for more information)?
Elle Fanning, and her audience, deserve better.
-- Michael O'Sullivan (March 6, 2009)
Contains profanity, homophobic playground taunts and brief discussion, from a child's perspective, of procreation.