Peter (Bill Pullman) and Hillary (Felicity Huffman) Lichten are highly literate parents who embrace their precocious children’s individuality. Dad’s newest novel is on the verge of publication, and Mom’s transforming her dissertation into a book, if only she could find the time to write. Their youngest daughter Olivia (Bailee Madison) is a brainiac who dresses like Karl Marx for Halloween, and ten-year-old Phoebe (Elle Fanning) corners the market on creativity. Home is a place where the girls enjoy the freedom to explore, which is in stark contrast to their experience at school. The classroom is a place where instructors teach by rote, their primary concern to force the students into quiet submission, not to encourage them toward inquiry. That is, until an odd new drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) arrives, bringing magic and excitement with her by sponsoring a school production of “Alice in Wonderland.” Phoebe wins the lead, much to her delight and the pride of her parents.
However, events take a turn that’s more reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s dark vision than Disney’s sugary version of the novel. Phoebe’s mother loves her family, but she struggles to reconcile her personal desire to achieve as an academic against the needs of her husband and kids, and Phoebe’s increasingly bizarre actions places an extra strain on her parents. Outside of the theatre, the young girl suffers bouts of compulsion and self-injury as well as flights of fancy that take her from the real world. She often finds herself in trouble, ending up on a psychiatrist’s couch or in the principal’s office. Worst of all, Phoebe doesn’t understand the cause of her behavior, and her only comfort is the stage.
For a movie starring children, “Phoebe in Wonderland” boasts strong acting. Madison’s a savvy adult in a pint-sized body, and Fanning acquits herself well as the ethereal, troubled lead (it’s to be expected; she is, after all, a Fanning). Likewise, Huffman, Pullman, and Clarkson all turn in solid performances. With such strong talent, the main flaw of the movie is found in its plot. The “Wonderland” motif, which could be a really cool framework for the story, is little more than a sparse reference point, and Phoebe’s occasional dalliances in the surreal are more disruptive than not. It’s also a little hard to believe that such educated parents as Peter and Hillary would have a hard time recognizing and seeking treatment for Phoebe’s problems, even if they were rocking a hard case of denial. However, director Daniel Barnz produces an enjoyable film that reminds us that imagination is a precious commodity which adults need to nurture by allowing kids to jump.