RetroReviews #28: Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)





Let’s get things straight from the start: Phoebe in Wonderland is not a fantasy film. It is drama. Of course, it ended up as part of my fantasy film marathon because the title and poster art seem to imply that the film belongs in the fantasy genre. Even other dram films set entirely in the “real world”, like Bridge to Terabithia, use some fantasy sequences to show us what the characters are imagining. There’s no fantasy in this story, however, it’s just a straight forward drama with Dakota’s little sister Elle Fanning in her first title role.

The basic concept of the film is a story about a 9 year old girl, Phoebe, who is struggling in school and doesn’t know what’s wrong. She is cast in the lead for the school’s play, Alice in Wonderland, but keeps getting in trouble at school for all kinds of behavior problems, much to the dismay of her exasperated parents. Her drama teacher (played by Patricia Clarkson but channeling the type of roles that Meryl Streep plays to constantly gets critical acclaim from highbrow sources) senses there’s something else going on that causes Phoebe to be unable to control herself at school.

As it turns out, it’s nothing insidious that you’d see in a lifetime TV movie, like the father molesting her, the mother being an alcoholic, a crazy grandmother, or anything along those lines. Rather, Phoebe gets diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. This element of the movie was done surprisingly well – most people are only familiar with Tourette’s with the stereotype that it “makes people swear uncontrollably”, although that’s only one syndrome of Tourette’s, and is certainly not present in every person that has Tourette’s (and certainly not a part of Phoebe’s behavior in this movie). Phoebe in Wonderland demonstrates what Tourette’s is like in real life (the main characterization of it being nervous tics), and I applaud it for that element.

One negative side to the entire movie is the case with many dramas – various scenes came across as too heavily handed and overwrought for me. The parents are supposed to be anguished over how they can no longer deal with Phoebe and her younger sister playing games at home, but the girls just came across as overly cute to me instead of causing their parents misery by being out of control. There’s a scene where the drama teacher “confronts” the principle about suspending Phoebe that really sounded like a Hollywood script screaming “tension!!!” than any type of conversation people would have in real life. The tacked on ending after the drama teacher is fired (sorry, I just gave away an important plot point) didn’t really work for me either, as it too conveniently wrapped up all the problems to leave us with the idea that “Phoebe got over problems , is now self-confident, and lived happily ever after” sort of conclusion.

Another interesting element is there actually are some “fantasy” scenes to show us what’s going on in Phoebe’s head, so I guess I was lying earlier about the straight drama. I guess its supposed to be allegory, that she sees everyone in real life as Alice in Wonderland characters, but it wasn’t really working for me here because it was random and , unlike Bridge to Terabithia, it didn’t advance the plot. This is another example where other films have used Alice in Wonderland imagery for allegory, and made it far more effective.

Overall, I’d have to describe Phoebe in Wonderland as a movie that falls into the “good film, but I don’t think I’d want to watch it again” category. It tells an important story, effectively drives home its message about children with disabilities and schools being too controlling, and it has some really great character moments and good scenes. But it’s not a film that I found to be very approachable or moving, and the scenes that annoyed me would only irk even more on a repeat. I’m sure what to make of Phoebe in Wonderland. It works, but even though I should, I simply don’t care for it.

** ½ out of ****



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