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MOVIE REVIEW

Phoebe in Wonderland

Younger Fanning brings the wonder to 'Phoebe'

Elle Fanning plays a 9-year-old with a difference in ''Phoebe in Wonderland.'' Elle Fanning plays a 9-year-old with a difference in ''Phoebe in Wonderland.'' (ThinkFilm/AP Photo)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 6, 2009
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Elle Fanning gives a luminous, almost transparent performance as a troubled 9-year-old girl in "Phoebe in Wonderland." As an actress, she's dreamier and less forceful than her older sister Dakota - more like an actual kid - and the movie's halfway over before you realize how many contradictory emotions she's summoning up. God knows what they feed these girls for breakfast - Cream of Streep?

The movie itself is an alternately inspired and awkward domestic drama that agonizes over the difference between a "special" child and one who may need actual professional help. At 9, Phoebe (Fanning) has a ripe imagination, but she washes her hands too much and drifts helplessly into little rituals that are disturbing even to her. Her mother (Felicity Huffman, doing solid work despite a horrifying wig) guilt-trips that she's a bad mom; dad Bill Pullman hides behind his work; little sister Olivia (Bailee Madison) is fed up with having to be the normal one.

To the rescue - for a while, at least - comes Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson), the spooky new drama teacher who casts Phoebe as Alice in the school's "Wonderland" play and who bonds with her over the difficulties of being young, female, and different. With her black dresses and eerie calm, Miss Dodger comes across like performance artist Laurie Anderson in charge of fourth grade, and the scenes of her playing head-trips on her smug young students are the sharpest moments here.

Phoebe's demons aren't so easily laid to rest, though, and much of the drama is in her fraught mother's attempts to cope. Do you label such a child with diagnoses or hope she'll come through? Do you medicate her personality away or ride the waves of disorder? "Phoebe in Wonderland" is partly produced by the Lifetime network and it has its therapy-drama side. Just as often, though, writer-director Daniel Barnz gets on the privileged wavelength of a girl who's not like others and can't understand why.

And Fanning goes all the way down the rabbit hole, letting Phoebe's wrenching fears well up through her face and body language. It's a guileless performance that's not the least bit actressy, and it leaves most of the other child performers looking vaguely dull-witted.

In fairness, most of the secondary roles are thinly written (including Campbell Scott's pettifogging principal), and the first-time feature director should have been harder on his own script. "Phoebe in Wonderland" gradually loses its grip on tone and believability, climaxing with a show-must-go-on moment that's just plain silly. Thankfully, Barnz knows exactly where to end his film: on the face of a girl, and an actress, at the crossroads.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND

Written and directed by: Daniel Barnz

Starring: Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman, Campbell Scott

At: Harvard Square

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (thematic material and brief strong language)

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