Phoebe in Wonderland

Movie review by
S. Jhoanna Robledo, Common Sense Media
Phoebe in Wonderland Movie Poster Image
Touching, at times intense drama teaches tolerance, empathy.
  • PG-13
  • 2009
  • 96 minutes

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 7 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 8 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

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."

Violence

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.

Sex
Language

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

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

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

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
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... Continue reading
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... Continue reading
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.
Teen, 17 years old Written byBestPicture1996 May 17, 2013

Disturbing, best for older teens

This film was surprisingly heavy, with Elle Fanning turning out an absolutely stunning performance as a troubled girl who just can't seem to bend to her pe... Continue reading

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?

Movie details

For kids who love art-house and fantasy fare

Our editors recommend

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.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality and learning potential.

Learn how we rate