Phoebe in Wonderland



Touching, at times intense drama teaches tolerance, empathy.
  • Review Date: June 22, 2009
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 2009
  • Running Time: 96 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Parents sometimes seem resentful of the troubles their child is causing them, though in the end they manage to help more than they hurt. In fact, they seem deeply caring about their child's condition -- just confused about what's happening and how to fix it. The kids in the play are capable of bullying and cruelty (one boy is "accused" of being gay), but they also become more cohesive in the end. A child mentions that she feels like "jumping off of a roof."


A child suffers from a disorder that has her spitting at others, hurting herself (washing her hands to the point that they're raw/bloody, etc.), and defying adults who try to help her. A couple argues over how to best help their child. Kids hit each other on the playground.

Not applicable

A few instances of "s--t," "damn," "faggot," and "screw you." One use of "f--ked."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

One character expresses gratitude for the painkiller Vicodin. Another smokes (briefly).

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.

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.

Families can talk 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?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:March 6, 2009
DVD release date:June 23, 2009
Cast:Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson
Director:Daniel Barnz
Run time:96 minutes
MPAA rating:PG-13
MPAA explanation:thematic material and brief strong language

This review of Phoebe in Wonderland was written by

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are conducted by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.


Our star rating assesses the media's overall quality.

Find out more

Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

Find out more

About our buy links

When you use our links to make a purchase, Common Sense Media earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes. As a nonprofit organization, these funds help us continue providing independent, ad-free services for educators, families, and kids while the price you pay remains the same. Thank you for your support.
Read more

See more about how we rate and review.

About Our Rating System

The age displayed for each title is the minimum one for which it's developmentally appropriate. We recently updated all of our reviews to show only this age, rather than the multi-color "slider." Get more information about our ratings.

Great handpicked alternatives

What parents and kids say

See all user reviews

Share your thoughts with other parents and kids Write a user review

A safe community is important to us. Please observe our guidelines

Adult Written bywonder dove March 11, 2009

Poor Phoebe!

It's not her fault! I enjoyed this movie, but not as much as I'd hoped. This film is full of sorrow when you try to feel and understand what Phoebe is going through. My only complaint is that it could have had a tad more action, a lot of it seemed too slow.
Parent of a 9 year old Written byRobyns_Nomomie May 30, 2014

a mile in others shoes

Although my daughter is not quite ready for this (i agree with the sites reviews that although it focuses around children it is not a children movie) It is very well done. Show you the world through the eyes of a young girl with Torrets syndrome. Great for parents whos children may suffer from social challenge disorders such as ADHD, Torrets, or Asperger's. Also great for older siblings of children with these types of challenges.
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Teen, 13 years old Written byJaynieLiz March 6, 2014

Loved it!!!

Just because you are different doesn't mean you can't enjoy things and you will always have people in your life that love every bit of you.
What other families should know
Great messages
Too much swearing


Did our review help you make an informed decision about this product?

Star Wars Guide