Daniel Barnz’s Phoebe in Wonderland dramatizes — messily and with an eccentric kind of force — a dilemma facing parents of “difficult” children that’s unique to our age: to medicate or not to medicate. It can seem outrageous how casually today’s physicians push drugs on kids and how eagerly some parents respond — until you see a kid whose life has been transformed for the better. The little girl in this case, Phoebe (Elle Fanning), has a condition most of us will recognize from media depictions; yet we’ll also sympathize with the convulsions of her mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman), who’s incensed at the prospect of taming (or punishing) her child’s wayward spirit. Phoebe’s behavior alienates her from her peers, but the girl finds refuge in fantasy and then theater: She wins the lead in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and connects with another misfit, a boy (Ian Colletti) bent on playing the Queen of Hearts. Before you groan, it’s important to say that Barnz’s approach to every scene could be called “anti-thesis.” Whenever we think he’s about to linger on the transcendental magic of theater (cue the piano chords) or go soft on his characters, the mood turns edgy and dark. His people are too unstable to pin down.
The fantasy sequences — various figures in Phoebe’s life appear as the Mad Hatter, Humpty Dumpty, etc. — pose no threat to Guillermo Del Toro. They’re pretty lame. Given how threadbare they are, it would have been better if Phoebe’s interior Wonderland had been left to our imaginations, especially since Fanning’s face hints at so much more. Elle has the Fanning family congenital radiance: With her white translucent skin and oversize faraway blue eyes, she doesn’t have to overact to suggest she’s in another realm. It’s more shocking when a girl who looks so pretty and cherubic blurts out nasty rhyming put-downs and spits on people; it doesn’t track.
Patricia Clarkson is the drama teacher, Miss Dodge (the play on the name Dodgson is a mistake), who has a preternatural insight into Phoebe’s specialness — she gazes on the girl with moist eyes. Before you groan again: Clarkson has a mischievous way with deadpan, and her cryptic, uninflected pronouncements muddle the line between inspirational and bonkers. I bet we’ve all had drama teachers like that — they’re the ones we loved the most. And I bet we’ve all had principals like Campbell Scott’s Mr. Davis, the opposite of a people person in a people person’s job. The wit in Scott’s performance is in how Davis hides behind his ugly caterpillar mustache and glasses. He’d rather not have the meeting with Phoebe’s parents to discuss the girl’s problems; he’d rather not deal with confused emotional stuff re: children at all.
By far the most unresolved character in Phoebe in Wonderland is the mother, Hillary, and Felicity Huffman is … fascinatingly off-putting. I’d like to watch the performance again to study its rhythmlessness, its psychological zigs and zags. Hillary is an unpublished writer; she’s both unfulfilled professionally and an uneasy mom. (Her husband, played by Bill Pullman, is warmly supportive in a way that’s generally useless.) She’s not cold or selfish — she loves Phoebe and Phoebe’s younger sister. She angrily defends Phoebe’s outbursts and idiosyncrasies. But she also asks her husband: “Do you ever wonder if we’re too tuned in to our kids?” She’s in a permanent state of doubt. And Huffman seems to have decided not to “finish” the character, not to pin her down, not to give us an easy handle. She doesn’t play Hillary so much as worry her. I think this is one of the bravest — and truest — portraits of a parent on film I’ve ever seen.