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Phoebe in Wonderland 

Wednesday, Mar 4 2009
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Nine-year-old Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is every parent's dream and nightmare — a talented child for whom school presents few challenges, but also a troubled girl prone to flights of fancy and self-abuse. She cannot process the real world, in which she finds no "hope," so instead loses herself in a make-believe one: Wonderland, courtesy of the drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) who encourages the lost little kid to "jump" lest she suffer a more brutal fall. And yet, even as Alice wandering a magical kingdom, Phoebe's condition deteriorates; her parents, writers played by Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman, find it easier to blame themselves than to allow outsiders (shrinks, principals, drama teachers) to interpret the source of Phoebe's anguish. A Lifetime Network production, writer-director Daniel Barnz' film is profoundly stirring, if also occasionally maddening. Its excursions into whimsy (Phoebe in conversation with the Mad Hatter and Red Queen, say) are clumsy, like scenes from Coraline injected into a far more serious drama about the fine line between illumination and despair. Yet the performances are transcendent — especially Fanning's, as the little girl who wants to get better, who wants to be better, as she slowly disappears through the Looking Glass.

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Robert Wilonsky

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