You need to keep a keen eye on Patricia Clarkson. She’s a sorceress of an actress who makes wicked magic, be it on TV (Six Feet Under) or stage (A Streetcar Named Desire) and in movies from High Art and Far From Heaven to Pieces of April, The Station Agent and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Clarkson is at her brilliant best in Phoebe in Wonderland. And that is saying something. She plays Miss Dodger, a drama teacher who seems to have dropped out of Alice in Wonderland. It’s only appropriate, since Miss Dodger is directing a class of preteens in a school production of Lewis Carroll’s rule-breaking allegory. “Jump,” she tells those students who audition timidly for roles. Miss Dodger likes to leap into the wild blue. She must have learned it from Clarkson.
Writer-director Daniel Barnz focuses the movie — his first, and it’s a beauty — on the student who just might be Miss Dodger’s match. Her name is Phoebe Lichten, and she’s played by Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister, with astonishing ferocity and feeling. Phoebe is nine years old. She lives at home with workaholic writer parents, and though they try to ignore her behavioral issues, Phoebe has them. She spits, curses, washes her hands till they turn raw and bleed. Mom Hillary (Felicity Huffman), who’s writing a scholarly book on Alice, sees (or wants to see) Phoebe’s problems as natural childhood rebellion. Dad Peter (Bill Pullman) is less patient. And Principal Davis (a wonderfully frazzled Campbell Scott) isn’t patient at all.
Miss Dodger, who sees herself in Phoebe, gives her the role of Alice. And the creative spark that ignites between them also ignites this mesmerizer of a movie. Huffman and Pullman excel in their roles, but the real world can’t begin to match the imaginary one conjured up by student and teacher. Barnz hints at the disorder (Tourette syndrome) that plagues Phoebe. Admirably, he never stoops to trite disease-of-the-week TV drama. Let Clarkson and Fanning take you to the rabbit hole of seductive enchantment that defines this movie. And don’t ask what to do — jump.