March 18, 2009
Review in a Hurry: Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is an unusual, if possibly troubled, kid who makes life miserable for her little sister, her parents and, oh heck, pretty much anyone else who knows her. Also, strange costumes are involved. Off with her head!
The Bigger Picture: Parents want a kid who's exceptional and unique, right? Unless, of course, they actually have to witness said child actually being exceptional and unique. That is another matter entirely. Felicity Huffman plays one such mom, and you really can't get a more unique daughter than Phoebe (Fanning). The story concerns the girl's quest to deal with the real world while trying to attain her true goal: to live in Wonderland.
For her this means playing Alice in the school play. Incidentally, Phoebe's mom has been working for years on her dissertation on...Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Both actresses are fierce in their roles and their characters a bit mad as a hatter. And only an actress on the level of say, Patricia Clarkson could compete.
As Phoebe's theater instructor, Mrs. Dodger (Clarkson) is not a mother substitute, but an older version of Phoebe. Things only get more and more curious.
Very early in the film, the titular character does some very odd things. If not played by such a consummate performer like the 10-year-old Fanning, the material could easily sink into melodrama. But Fanning keeps Phoebe an interesting enigma, somewhere between adorable and annoying.
So there's no denying the cast (which also includes Bill Pullman and Campbell Scott) is terrific and that first time writer/director Daniel Barnz has stacked the deck for his precious indie flick. If only he'd trusted his instincts and kept the material low tech instead of allowing the story to become overly theatrical with dream sequences.
The 180-a Second Opinion: Alice in Wonderland is a bit overused as a metaphor these days, what with Elle's sister Dakota already starring in another rabbit-hole tale (Coraline).