Elle Fanning starrer “Phoebe in Wonderland” is a live-action entry in the little-girl-fantasy genre that, like the puppet-animated “Coraline” (toplining Fanning’s sister Dakota), stresses both the wonders and the terrors of the imagination. Phoebe is differently enabled — also beautiful, wistful and fey, as portrayed by Fanning. Whenever tyro writer-director Daniel Barnz sticks to his luminous star, his script’s blatant inconsistency reads as willful ambiguity. Whenever he vainly fleshes out Phoebe’s reality/fantasy axis, the unfocused pic founders in bathetic whimsy. Pic grossed $26,111 in its 11-screen debut over the weekend.
Nine-year-old Phoebe suffers from Tourette syndrome, a fact coyly unrevealed until the pic’s denouement; the filmmaker, apparently, is as reluctant as Phoebe’s mother (Felicity Huffman) to accept “reductive” labels (though once Phoebe is pigeonholed, she can smilingly show-and-tell her disease in class). The syndrome manifests itself at school in antisocial behavior of a remarkably genteel bent (rarely has spitting been accomplished with such a minimum of phlegm and a maximum of provocation), and at home in more serious, self-destructive rituals, leaving Phoebe with night terrors and bloody hands and knees.
Phoebe is given the lead role in a school production of “Alice in Wonderland,” ringmastered by a quaintly garbed, “Jabberwocky”-spouting drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson). This unleashes a scattershot barrage of quotes, cheesy hallucinations, circular pans and archly pretentious“Wonderland” comparisons (with Phoebe’s shrink, played by Peter Gerety, recast as a lamely costumed Humpty Dumpty), the already tenuous lines between reality and fantasy blurrily evaporating.
In “Heavenly Creatures,” “Coraline” or the peerless “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a girl’s entrance into a parallel universe symbolizes a deep sea change into something rich and strange; here, it signals a mishmash of motley agendas and trendy causes that contradict themselves.
Partly produced by Lifetime, the pic attempts to elevate the disease-of-the-week movie into a moral dialectic between conformity and imagination. Political correctness — the view of mental illness as an extension of normal behavior — trumps any narrative logic. Thus, Barnz arbitrarily posits a nonsensical series of school “rules” to embody conformity, while imagination is repped by Tourette syndrome.
For extra credit, Barnz throws in simplistically overwrought feminism: Huffman shrilly complains of the difficulty of reconciling work and motherhood, while Bill Pullman’s uninspired turn as Phoebe’s dad adds a touch of male cluelessness to the mix. Indeed, few adult actors manage to overcome the pic’s skewed point-making, Campbell Scott’s hilarious spin on a babbling, responsibility-avoiding principal being a notable exception.
This sorry straggler from last year’s Sundance Film Festival peaks with a wince-worthy New Age update of Andy Hardy, as Phoebe’s playmates learn the value of individuality by rote repetition of “I’m responsible!,” capped by a musical number of staggering unoriginality.