Dir/scr: Daniel Barnz. US. 2008. 96mins.
In the lyrically compelling though dynamically flawed Phoebe in Wonderland, first-time feature director Daniel Barnz excites and frustrates in equal measure. His story of a dazzlingly smart young girl's personal liberation through her exposure to the Lewis Carroll masterpiece has moments of awe and wonder though it ends so shockingly compromised and safe that much of the impressive work feels cancelled out.

It is a work that spends much of its length proudly championing the outsider, the troublemaker, the free spirit. At the end it provides a much too easy rationale for that very behaviour. It's particularly disappointing because director/screenwriter Barnz shows some of the most lucid and thoughtful moments about childhood since French director Jacques Doillon's superb Ponette (1995). He intuitively understands the isolation and terror of childhood, the need for personal expression and simultaneous power and danger of outsized imagination.

This dramatic competition title left Sundance without a US distribution deal. The movie rides on the remarkable range of nine-year old Elle Fanning, the adult cast of Felicity Huffman, Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson and Bill Pullman is enough for a smaller distributor to provide the right push, particularly in the home markets. Other festival appearances seem certain in the US and abroad.

In a very controlled and rigorous performance, Fanning is sensational as the eponymous nine-year Phoebe, an incredibly bright, alert and quick thinker whose constant questioning of rule and order leaves her with few friends and wholly at odds with her parents (Huffman and Pullman), school teachers and principal (Scott). She retreats into an elaborate fantasy world she imagines herself interacting with characters from Lewis Carroll's 1865 work. Her innate nonconformist instincts do not shield her from self-abuse or anti-social actions directed at classmates. Her only emotional solace is her developing friendship with Jamie (Colletti), a similarly tormented outsider.

Her emotional outlook brightens considerably when the unorthodox new drama teacher (Clarkson) casts her in the lead role in a school production of the Carroll play. Phoebe's mother is completing a cultural study of the Carroll work for a book. The confluence of the play, her role, her mother's connection to it and her consistently open, digressive and challenging nature have a cascading effect that ruptures the story in multiple folds.

Barnz has a sharp visual eye, and his invocation of childhood is impressively open and detailed. His switching between Phoebe's feverishly imagined fantasy world and her often despairing, twisted actual world is fluid and deft. Similarly, the moments between Fanning and Colletti have a heartbreaking poignancy and sharpness that understands the pain of childhood withdrawal and chart the emotional consequences of standing outside the pack.

The sequences of Fanning and her sister (Joo) are also graced by a fluency and emotional detail that leave a very distinct impression. Technically, Bobby Bukowski's camera work is inventive, aided by Therese DePrez's excellent production design. Christophe Beck's music is note perfect.

As the principal Campbell appears both miscast and badly drawn, from his mannered line readings to very wrongly stylized physical movements. His work plays like something from a different film, and everything about it seems off and wrong. As the father, Pullman has a thankless part, the role of the emasculated man he's played too many times in the past (Accidental Tourist, Sommersby). Huffman is far more energetic and convincing as a mother trapped by social obligations and feeling vulnerable and helpless in understanding her gifted daughter.

Inexplicably Barnz undercuts the power and forcefulness of his own film with a late sequence that rather conveniently and regretfully provides a medical explanation for why and how Phoebe acts. The scene is not just dishonest, it's insulting and it leaves a bad taste on a film and a performance that deserve a stronger and less conventional end.

Production companies
Salty Features
Silverwood Films

Executive producer
Doug Dey

Ben Barnz
Lynette Howell

Director of photography
Bobby Bukowski

Production designer
Therese DePrez

Robert Hoffman

Christophe Beck

Main cast:
Elle Fanning
Felicity Huffman
Bill Pullman
Patricia Clarkson
Campbell Scott
Cindy Joo
Ian Colletti
Peter Gerety