A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that although children figure prominently in this fantasy-tinged drama, it deals with themes that are too mature for tweens and younger kids. The young characters exhibit some aggressive behavior -- including spitting, shoving, and self-destructive actions -- and a child is tormented because she can't understand why she behaves the way she does. Her pain is deeply felt, which can make for difficult viewing. That said, the film has lots of heart, and teens and adults who watch may come away feeling educated and little less jaded. Expect some strong language and smoking.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
Hillary (Felicity Huffman) knows her 9-year-old daughter marches to the beat of her own drum. Phoebe (Elle Fanning, in an excellent performance) is creative, charismatic, and, yes, troubled. Her world's delicate balance is easily upended, sending her into loops of destructive and obsessive-compulsive behavior (incessant hand-washing, repeating specific stepping sequences). It's hard on her family: Her father is overwhelmed, her younger sister is tired of Phoebe getting all the attention, and Hillary is nearly lost. They all wonder if Phoebe will ever conquer her demons. A lead part in the school play, Alice in Wonderland, and quirky drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson), may be Phoebe's salvation ... until the principal (Campbell Scott) decides to punish her for another behavioral mishap by yanking her out of it. Everyone wonders: What's wrong with Phoebe?
Is it any good?
Visually appealing and full of surprises, PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND takes audiences on a fanciful journey into a strange world spun by a complicated child. And what a vivid place it is! Writer-director Daniel Barnz paints a colorful, whimsical universe for Phoebe -- one worthy of Alice herself. But it's also moody and foreboding, where life requires running hard just to stay in place, where familiar behaviors both soothe and torment, and where your own skin doesn't feel so good to live in. The grown-ups don't appear to have the answers, either, except perhaps to brand Phoebe as eccentric or problematic.
Barnz keeps the feel kinetic and highly stylized with quick cuts and costumed characters. Everything is made to feel allegorical: Clarkson's Miss Dodger, Scott's principal, and even Phoebe's classmates are all rendered left of center. It's all well and good -- except for the fact that it somewhat misrepresents the film. Viewers expect an oddball denouement, or maybe even a creepy one. But that's not what they get. For what ails Phoebe isn't some mystery or eccentricity; it's something very real and heartbreaking. And when it's revealed, all that fantasy seems unnecessary. The film already does a great job exploring the isolated -- and isolating -- corners of parenting, and it doesn't really need all that whimsy to make its point. With fewer fantastical bells and whistles, PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND wouldn't have been as look-at-me dazzling. But it would have been far more powerful.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the film blends real life and fantasy. Does the fantasy make the drama more or less effective? Why? How does Phoebe's imagination help her cope with her life? Do you think her parents react appropriately to what's going on? What about her teachers and classmates? What does Phoebe learn from the play, and how does it help her feel better, if at all? How well does the film address any questions about Phoebe's dilemma?
- In theaters: March 6, 2009
- On DVD or streaming: June 23, 2009
- Cast: Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson
- Director: Daniel Barnz
- Studio: THINKFilm
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 96 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic material and brief strong language
- Last updated: November 27, 2020
Our editors recommend
For kids who love art-house and fantasy fare
Top advice and articles
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.
Streaming options powered by JustWatch