Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Movie Log: Phoebe in Wonderland

I have two children, both of the same sex, and the older one is not entirely neurotypical, so I was very interested to see Phoebe in Wonderland. The specifics in the movie aren't the same -- here it's two girls rather than my two boys, and her condition is different from my son's -- but there were enough parallels to make it very interesting for The Wife and I.

Phoebe is smart and about ten but starting to have more and more trouble at school; she's spitting at other kids and just generally having problems with impulse control. She's also creating very elaborate coping mechanisms -- of the I-have-to-wash-my-hands-a-specific-number-of-times type -- which are not really helping her fit in. And, related to both of those -- or creating both of them -- she's also having hallucinations. (She's played by the excellent Elle Fanning, who I note is twenty-three days younger than my own Thing 1.) In the movie, this starts subtly, keeping the audience's sympathies with Phoebe -- we see her interact with a series of rule-bound, dull teachers and with a ratty (he's too mean to be mousy), passive-aggressive principal.

At the same time, Phoebe's mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman), is greatly conflicted about her decision to semi-abandon her own career (which appears to have been in the English PhD-industrial complex) to raise her daughters, and somewhat annoyed by her husband Peter's (Bill Pullman) success in that same area and/or his lack of support of her needs. She wants to believe that Phoebe will be better, or that there's nothing "wrong" with her daughter -- she also thinks that Phoebe's problems, essentially, have to do with Hillary. (Phoebe's younger sister, Olivia (Bailee Madison) doesn't get much screen time, but she has one great scene where she declares that she doesn't want to have to manage her older sister all the time.)

So, Phoebe is getting worse at coping with her everyday life, as her own brain is making that life harder and harder to live. But, one day, she decides to sign up for an audition for her school play -- an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland -- and quickly comes to believe in and trust the odd drama teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson). She gets the lead, and the play becomes a place where her new behaviors don't overwhelm her -- but, of course, the outside world threatens the world of the play, as it always does in stories like this.

Phoebe in Wonderland has a lot of cliches in it -- the One Special Teacher, the Wonderfulness of Theater, the Perfidiousness of Authority Figures, and so on -- and the script doesn't always live up to its potential, or to the performances it loosely contains. But the acting is uniformly strong, and Elle Fanning is particularly good. And if it has any connection to your own life -- if you, or someone close to you, is young and not neurotypical -- it's riveting.

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