the invasion of the fannings continues with elle fanning's star turn in phoebe in wonderland. and, being a fanning, her role isn't quite the oddball schoolgirl that phoebe at first appears to be, which is writer-director daniel barnz's biggest misstep.
despite finding refuge in a school production of alice in wonderland, led by the seriously odd drama teacher miss dodger (patricia clarkson), phoebe still engages in supposedly troubling behavior. when she spits at a classmate who chases her on the playground, the teacher is appalled but phoebe's parents-and the audience-don't really find much to worry about. as phoebe's behavior threatens to spin out of control-hopping up and down in increasingly intricate patterns-her mother's frustration with her own life mounts. hillary (felicity huffman) spends most of her time blaming her two children and husband for her inability to finish her book, an analysis of alice in wonderland, natch. but what her work lacks in originality, hillary herself compensates for as the kind of mother we see all too rarely in films, one who finds herself dangerously close to wishing for a complete redo on her life.
but then phoebe's condition is revealed, in what seems to have been intended as a major revelation but ends up as an anticlimax. after spending over an hour counting her steps, hallucinating conversations with lewis carroll's characters, and jumping off a catwalk and onto the school stage, phoebe stands in front of her classmates for a very special show-and-tell, pedantically explaining that she has tourette's syndrome. by naming phoebe's problem, barnz simultaneously grinds to a halt his childhood fantasia and negates huffman's grim performance. instead of regretting her needy daughter, hillary becomes the mother of a special needs child, which casts her impatience with phoebe in a far more generous light.
until then, barnz shows a firm directorial hand, most impressively by keeping the troupe of child actors from becoming cloyingly adorable. but despite a unique and refreshing vision, he fails his film by explaining its mysteries. that the magical-seeming miss dodge (who remains hilariously icy during the children's auditions) is the most effective character should be a lesson about the power of not sabotaging one's legerdemain. -- phoebe in wonderland directed by daniel barnz running time: 96 min.