Conyers natives Dakota and Elle Fanning are an impressive pair of acting sisters, particularly given that they're both kids. Elle Fanning was only 10 years old for the filming of Phoebe in Wonderland, yet her rich performance nearly carries the entire movie.
Fanning's Phoebe is a creative, precocious girl, bored by the rule-obsessed teacher at her school. Phoebe decides to audition for the school's production of Alice in Wonderland, and wins the title role. Phoebe in Wonderland's cleverest creation is Phoebe's classmate Jamie (Ian Colletti), a budding theater queen who collects dolls and tries out for the Queen of Hearts.
During the rehearsal process, however, Phoebe's quirks become more problematic. She washes her hands until her knuckles bleed, engages in endless rituals, spits at classmates and lets verbal outbursts fly. Her scholarly parents Peter and Hillary (Bill Pullman and "Desperate Housewives'" Felicity Huffman) grapple with guilt and concern when Phoebe exhibits symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Just as Hillary asserts that pinning labels such as OCD on children can be a substitute for understanding young people, writer/director Daniel Barnz appreciates the complexities of such mental conditions. Nevertheless, Phoebe in Wonderland sends such mixed messages, the net result is a thematic muddle worthy of the Mad Tea Party. The film cherishes creativity, venerating theater teacher Miss Dodger in terms comparable to Dead Poets Society while turning other authority figures into heavy-handed villains. But it also shows Phoebe talking to imagined characters (seeing her therapist as Humpty Dumpty, for instance), which could be simple daydreams or outright hallucinations. Although the characters say Phoebe fares better in the play than outside it, the audition process seems to exacerbate her condition, watering down the notion of the healing powers of art.
Despite the broad strokes in the characterizations of the adult roles, Fanning gives Phoebe a poise and focus worthy of Jodie Foster at the same age. Barnz's sensitive collaboration with Fanning prevents the disorder from defining the character. While Phoebe in Wonderland proves both vague and overly precious, Fanning asserts that despite her youth, she might be the most likely to succeed.
This story has been modified to correct an erroneous statement regarding Katharine and Audrey Hepburn.