New review: Phoebe in Wonderland

Phoebe in Wonderland (dir/scr: Daniel Barnz)

I tried to walk a careful line between what is perceived and what lies behind the perceptions in my Seattle P-I review of Phoebe in Wonderland. In this case, it’s the assumption that the obsessive compulsive behavior of the bright, creative, grade-school girl Phoebe (played by Elle Fanning) is in fact a symptom of  OCD, a term that her mother avoids using and the film even shies away from. In some ways the film is structured like a mystery – what causes this behavior? can she be cured? why does the power of theater calm her symptoms and her anxiety? – and that aspect of the film is least interesting. The exploration of Phoebe’s emotional and mental state, and of her mother’s (Felicity Huffman) exhausted attention and defensive protectiveness, is the story that makes the film interesting.

Elle Fanning in Phoebe, escaping into her Wonderland
Elle Fanning is Phoebe, escaping into her Wonderland

Phoebe and her younger sister, Olivia (who, if anything, is even smarter and more sensitive) are nurtured in a household where play and imagination are encouraged by their parents. When Phoebe is plunged into the structure of grade school, where teachers are obsessed with rules, her outlets are closed down and her behavior becomes more extreme and at times alarming (such as spitting at kids in the middle of a game of tag or blurting out insults in class). Mom refuses to believe it is anything more than the healthy excesses of an imaginative and energetic little girl, but her position is grounded in denial and fear, as if acknowledging that she’s not normal will both prevent Phoebe from a normal childhood and prove that she’s been a poor mother to allow such a thing to happen. It’s no mystery where Phoebe inherited her anxiety.

All of this is well observed (if not always subtle) and the film’s sensitivity to the mother’s frustrations – she gave up her academic ambitions to be a stay-at-home mother and the demands of watching over a child whose behavior could cause injury to herself – is quite sincere and vivid. Equally vivid is Phoebe’s seemingly erratic and increasingly obsessive behavior and Elle Fanning does a marvelous job of exhibiting her frustrations and mercurial changes of mood. What frustrates me is that such a rich exploration of mental and emotional challenges of a person so easily slips into a happy ending where a successful diagnosis becomes tantamount to a cure and an explanation to a class full of little kids leads to instant understanding and forgiveness.

Read my review in the Seattle P-I here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website ( I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View ( I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly,, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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