I just finished watching a movie called Phoebe In Wonderland. “The fantastical tale of a little girl who won’t – or can’t – follow the rules. Confounded by her clashes with the rule-obsessed world around her, Phoebe seeks enlightenment from her unconventional drama teacher, as her brilliant but anguished mother begins to worry for her daughter’s health.” as described by one movie fan on IMDB.
Nine-year-old Phoebe has undiagnosed Tourette’s Syndrome with OCD tendencies. Phoebe is very much aware that her impulsive behaviour isn’t “normal” but she cannot control it no matter how hard she tries. She is ostracized by her classmates. Her younger sister is jealous of the extra attention Phoebe receives from their mother. The only time Phoebe seems happy is when she is fantasizing about her interactions with the characters from Alice In Wonderland.
The adults around her are distant and seem useless. Her teachers are unwilling to deviate from “Good Job, Jenny’s” list of school rules (see clip below). Her mother, who is attempting to write a book about Alice In Wonderland, is in complete denial of her daughter’s illness even after the child was diagnosed by a psychiatrist. Pheobe’s father seems to be more of an afterthought. He’s not really involved in the child rearing process other than to continually ask his wife what is wrong with Phoebe.
Enter Miss Dodger. The new, and rather eccentric, drama teacher who is directing the school production of Alice In Wonderland. Phoebe is desperate to get the role of Alice and the symptoms of her MHI worsen throughout the audition and rehearsal process. Phoebe flourishes while on the stage under Miss Dodger’s unconventional guidance, but continues to struggle outside the drama department. I won’t ruin the story for anyone who wants to see it, but it does end with everyone coming to terms with Phoebe’s MHI, including Phoebe.
I have mixed feelings about the movie. I’m thrilled that writer/director Daniel Barnz was willing to tackle such a sensitive subject as children’s mental illness. I was impressed with the formidable cast which included Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman, Felicity Huffman and Elle Fanning as Phoebe. The sets were wonderfully done, especially the Wonderland scenes and the costumes were lovely. Elle Fanning‘s performance was charming and Patricia Clarkson, as Miss Dodger, gave an inspired, yet understated, performance.
I was, however, thrown off by how choppy the movie seemed to be. It seemed to lack flow. The characters’ dialogue was often stunted and the only character who seemed fully developed was Phoebe. There were incidences at the school when Phoebe spat on her classmates who were tormenting her. Phoebe was only the one to receive any consequences for the behaviour, the other children were made out to be victims. This upset me greatly and I was only able to watch the film in short stints instead of in one sitting.
I wonder if Barnz was attempting to create a deeper understanding of how Phoebe saw the world and the people around her – not fully developed, hurtful rather than helpful. If so I would say he was successful. Perhaps the choppiness was intended to give the viewer the idea of how Phoebe feels in the “normal” world. Which puts an interesting spin on the film, though, not enough to make me say I enjoyed watching it.
I believe the movie will appeal to those who are already part of the children’s mental health community and those who like artistic, independent films. Unfortunately, this is like preaching to the choir. While I appreciate the artistic nature of the film I feel Barnz could have made a greater impact for Children’s Mental Health had he created a film which would have appealed to a wider audience.
On the hand, I could be completely wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time and, I assure you, it won’t be the last.
I’d love to hear from other people who have viewed this film. What is your take on the movie? How do you feel about Phoebe’s journey? What is your opinion of Barnz’s portrayal of Children’s Mental Health? Let me know, leave a comment!