At first the young girl at the center of "Phoebe in Wonderland" seems to have a life that is truly the stuff of fairy tales, the happy dreamy ones. Where a birthday gift from her parents is a magically wistful diorama of Alice in Wonderland, covered in lights and jewels, handcrafted, not store bought, and just her cup of tea.
Phoebe, played with a bittersweetness by Elle Fanning in this overly earnest and often difficult film, seems to be nothing more than a delightfully inventive child who happens to have Wonderland all around her. At home, her mother, Hillary, a darker and more tentative Felicity Huffman than we're used to, is working on her thesis based on the Lewis Carroll classic. Even the school play is on topic, with Phoebe soon cast as Alice, happily tumbling into that surreal world of the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts, where up is down and nothing is ordinary.
But, we soon discover, there are problems with spending too much time in Wonderland; troubling ones that call for tears and meetings with teacher and therapists. All the while, Hillary clings to the hope that her daughter is just special, different in a world where most kids grow up to be what Miss Dodger, Patricia Clarkson in an artful turn as Phoebe's drama teacher, calls "the awful normals."
So what to do about Phoebe -- is it a vivid imagination or deeper emotional issues shaping her sensitive spirit? A serious question to be asking in an age when such problems, particularly in children, are often medicated away. Writer-director Daniel Barnz, who says he was himself a different sort of child, rushes right in, using the film to examine the pros and the perils of an unconventional life.
Given that, it is not surprising that Clarkson's Miss Dodger, an eclectic creature in her own right, is just as misunderstood as Phoebe. Or that she is the one steady and sure presence in an otherwise off-kilter milieu. It doesn't hurt that she has the most marvelously rich voice, able to take a line as simple as "Welcome to Wonderland" and infuse it with so much warmth that you want to immediately pack up and join her there.
When it is working, the film delivers telling moments filled with sadness and poignancy: Hillary hesitatingly asking Miss Dodger, "she doesn't do . . . inappropriate things?" "Never," Miss Dodger says, "she's very happy here," Huffman's body nearly collapsing in the face of words that both comfort and damn her.
There are problems for us as well in Wonderland. Like its main characters, the film is having an identity crisis -- is it a parable for adults or a fable for children? Its childlike whimsy doesn't always fit with its very grown-up themes.
'Phoebe in Wonderland'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500