Sunday, August 09, 2009

Phoebe in Wonderland: Grade D


Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)

Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman; Writer-Director Daniel Barnz.

The only thing that saves this self-consciously precious domestic melodrama from total failure are a few excellent acting scenes. One from Huffman, as the mother of her disturbed daughter (Fanning) is riveting. Clarkson possesses the screen each time she is on, even if she says hardly anything. I grudgingly admit that Fanning is charismatic, though I object to exploitation of child stars. She is only an adequate actor but has the incongruous face and voice of a female twice her age.

Phoebe is about 10 and suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, a variant of OCD. At first we see just children’s games of the “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” variety, but soon full fledged OCD emerges. Oddly, despite being a Ph.D. candidate, the mother remains unaware and thinks the girl’s problems at school are caused by her own inattentiveness. She rejects recommended psychiatric medication out of ignorance. Phoebe gets succor and zenlike advice from the monosyllabic drama teacher (Clarkson), gets in trouble with the caricature dimwit principal, but the show must go on! (the show is Alice in Wonderland). The conflict over psychiatric meds remains unresolved, as does the child’s future.

There is about 30 minutes of story. The remaining hour-plus is filled with mind-numbing domestic scenes of no consequence, kids acting precocious, adults pronouncing clich├ęs and platitudes. There is a mild but genuine story about the difficulty for parents of recognizing and coming to terms with childhood mental illness, but here the theme was swamped by maudlin sentimentality. There may be an audience for this kind of movie among brain dead mothers who don’t get out much. It’s hard to fathom why critics generally liked it.

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