So much of what constitutes psychological inquiry in cinema is overly simplistic, boiling down the complexity of behavior to clichés. So it’s exceptionally gratifying, when dealing with subjects as difficult as parenting and growing up, to find as rich an inquiry as Daniel Barnz’s remarkable <i>Phoebe in Wonderland</i>.
This is at once a tale of Phoebe (Elle Fanning), a young girl who is different, and a portrait of her mother (Felicity Huffman), a woman caught between trying to raise a child and striving for success in an academic career, while feeling a failure in both. It also includes an unusually gifted, but peculiar, educator—a drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson), who is directing the school production of <i>Alice in Wonderland</i>, which Phoebe longs to be part of. As talented and exceptional as Phoebe appears to be, she is also increasingly far away, retreating into fantasy, and frustrating her parents and teachers.
As an examination of normalcy and madness, this is realistic and cerebral storytelling, but it is also extravagantly magical, a metaphorical fable that examines childhood, our attempts to understand it, and the way we, as parents and teachers, navigate its treacherous shoals. A film full of strangeness, exhilarating moments of realization, and painfully real revelations, <i>Phoebe in Wonderland</i> is an honest and thoughtful work that is not to be missed.