‘Phoebe’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mirror gay filmmaker’s issues
Not having the advantage of a definitive film treatment, Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland" takes a back seat to "The Wizard of Oz" in pop culture.
When someone does draw on "Alice" for inspiration, it takes them to dark places: Jan Svankmajer’s stop-motion animated feature; Jefferson Airplane’s drug-related "White Rabbit" and Gavin Millar’s brilliant "Dreamchild," which showed Carroll writing the book to sublimate his love for a little girl.
Now gay writer-director Daniel Barnz brings us "Phoebe in Wonderland," an admirably acted drama that loses its way when it goes through a looking glass of its own making. Barnz, who is raising two children with his partner, producer Ben Barnz, seems to be trying to sort out some parenting issues.
"Phoebe" is the story of a nine-year-old, Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning), who at first has what looks like a perfect life but becomes increasingly troubled, finding relief only on stage in a school production of "Alice in Wonderland." ("Everywhere else I feel ugly.")
Phoebe’s parents, Hillary (Felicity Huffman) and Peter (Bill Pullman) are writers. She grows up in a house so full of love and imagination that her seven-year-old sister Olivia (Bailee Madison) dresses as Karl Marx for Halloween.
At school Phoebe sometimes gets into trouble for spitting on other kids who gang up on her. She’s inspired by the new drama teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson), and auditions for her play, winning the role of Alice. Phoebe obsesses in a self-destructive manner, first about getting the part and later about keeping it.
Her only friend, Jamie (Ian Colletti) shoots for and scores the role of the Queen of Hearts, not caring what the others say about him. When a jealous girl calls him "homo" he says, "’Homoâ€š got the part!" Later someone paints "Fagot" [sic] on his cape.
Hillary lets her daughter see a psychologist, Dr. Miles (Peter Gerety), but refutes his OCD diagnosis: "It’s what kids do …. Your profession just doesn’t like kids to be kids."
The girls compete for their mother’s affection, even though she seems to have plenty to go around. Phoebe’s interest in "Alice in Wonderland" is seen as a way of getting closer to Hillary, who wrote a dissertation on it that she’s trying to turn into a book.
For about an hour, the message is that it’s good to be different. Hillary defends Phoebe as "imaginative and sensitive and passionate."
The villains of the movie are people who would suppress Phoebe’s difference. Eventually, however, the root of Phoebe’s problem is diagnosed, putting her nonconformity in a different, less romantic light. It’s not clear how much Barnz intends this to negate what went before. Phoebe is still to be loved, accepted and tolerated, but on different terms. And medication seems more important than arts education for helping her. This sends a mixed message at best.
Despite this weakness in the script, "Phoebe in Wonderland" provides a grand showcase for two of our best actresses — Clarkson, whose subtlety is dazzling, and Huffman, who has to overcome a distractingly bad wig. And one actress — Elle Fanning — who may one day join their ranks.
PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND
Rating: B • Director: Daniel Barnz • Cast: Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Bill Pullman, Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott • Opens: March 13 at Angelika-Dallas. • Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.• PG-13
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 13, 2009.