Thursday, August 23, 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole: Phoebe in Wonderland

Some of you may know that I have a slight obsession with all things Alice in Wonderland, so when my cousin proposed that we watch the movie Phoebe in Wonderland, I was happy to comply. (I had been meaning to get around to it anyway, so this was as good a time as any.)

Phoebe in Wonderland is about a 9-year-old girl (the titular Phoebe) who is an outcast at her rigid, rule-bound school but feels things might change with the addition of Miss Dodger, a quirky new drama teacher who encourages everyone to sign up for the school play, Alice in Wonderland. After much debate, Phoebe signs up for auditions and wins the role of Alice. While all seems to be going well on the theater front, all is clearly not well with Phoebe at school and at home. She suffers from a severely debilitating case of OCD (her hands are raw from obsessive hand-washing and her knees are scrapped up from jumping up and down the stairs in a specific pattern instead of merely descending), she confesses she cannot help but say or do certain things, and she is having hallucinations (all of which are wrapped up in the Alice storyline in some way). Despite all this evidence, however, her mother Hillary is insistent that Phoebe is just a regular child and does not have any kind of disorder.

This film was very different from what I expected from the brief blurbs given about it. My thoughts were that the movie would be a quirky surrealistic film about a young girl's imagination. Instead, it was a dramatic look at a neurodevelopmental disorder and its effects not just on the sufferer but her family as well. Indeed, the movie belonged more to Hillary than Phoebe, even if Phoebe is the one on screen more. The movie's story arc is more about Hillary's coming to terms with the idea that her daughter is not just a typical child and finding the help she needs to cope with her disorder and still be herself. Some of the most poignant scenes in the film belong to her, such as when the psychiatrist Hillary hires first tells his diagnosis and she refuses to believe it outwardly, ranting about how doctors just want to prescribe medication instead of letting kids be kids while the tears on her distorted face indicate that on a deeper level, she knows he is right. Another powerful scene comes when her husband tries to apologize for an earlier insensitive remark and Hillary responds with a whole list of things that frustrate her, including her inability to understand what is wrong with her daughter or how to help her. Still another emotional scene occurs when Hillary goes to comfort a scared Phoebe waking up from a nightmare; Hillary notices Phoebe's battered knees and both mother and daughter cry for different reasons. There are plenty of other such scenes of Hillary's struggle with mothering a special needs child as well as her other daughter who sometimes wishes that she had another sibling that she didn't have to take care of and explain away her actions to others, despite being the younger one.

In addition to these deep scenes and themes, there are a number of other messages underlying in this movie. There's the power of art as a redemptive force, as seen in the play's ability to largely subsume Phoebe's symptoms. Likewise, theater - and especially Miss Dodger - encourages the school's children to be who they are and learn how to direct their own paths. Fitting in or rather, not fitting in, is a recurring element in the movie. It is not just Phoebe and her lack of friendships with most of her peers. There's her one and only true friend at school, Jamie, a young boy who happily plays with dolls and hopes for the role of the Queen of Hearts in the upcoming school musical. And, it's also her younger sister, who is wise beyond her years and dresses up as Karl Marx for Halloween, goes on a hunger strike when she learns their dinner was not made with cage-free poultry, and worries that at 7 years old she has not produced as much as the 6-year-old Mozart did.

There's some brilliant acting throughout the film, especially by young Elle Fanning as Phoebe and Felicity Huffman as Hillary. Miss Dodger, as played by Patricia Clarkson, was an interesting character as well, with some suspecting that she can relate so well to Phoebe because she, too, has a disorder - quite possibly she has Asperger's syndrome. In addition, the filmography is mostly well done, although there was an occasional scene that was too abrupt or seemed misplaced. Throughout, I found the dialogue to be very quiet while the music soared incredibly loudly, although this is not a problem unique to this movie alone. (It is a continual pet peeve of mine to have be continually changing the volume because filmmakers seem to think that the spoken word should be barely audible but the soundtrack should blast your eardrums off.)

All and all, this is a very interesting movie, but certainly a more serious one that I was expecting. Don't go into this one looking for some light-hearted, quirky fun -- but do go in to it to explore how difficult life could be for a child - and a family - going through the process of suffering from something unknown and finally learning - and making peace with - what this unknown factor is.

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