Phoebe in Wonderland

Elle Fanning carries this likable film on her 10-year-old shoulders.

Elle Fanning in Phoebe in Wonderland

Phoebe in Wonderland (THINKfilm), the debut film of writer/director Daniel Barnz, has an overeager, please-love-me quality. Its fancifulness is at times too clunky, its pathos too strained. (The film, produced in part by the Lifetime channel, has some of the PSA-style earnestness of a Lifetime “issue” movie.) But Barnz has a secret weapon, one that’s 4 feet tall and looks to weigh about 60 pounds: Elle Fanning, the 10-year-old younger sister of Dakota, who plays the disturbed but delightful heroine, Phoebe.

I’ve had my eye on Elle for a while now. In 2004, at the age of 6, she went toe-to-toe with Jeff Bridges in the John Irving adaptation The Door in the Floor. She played the only surviving daughter of a couple whose two other children have died, a very demanding role for such a small girl, and her grave face is the only thing that stays with me from that movie. The following year, she and Dakota provided the English-language voices for the sister protagonists of the great Japanese animated film My Neighbor Totoro. Since then, Elle has popped up in minor roles everywhere: Babel, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. As an actor since the age of 3, not to mention the sibling of a superstar, she has every reason to come off as overpackaged and self-consciously cute, the next product ready to pop off the Fanning assembly line. Instead, she’s an astonishingly natural and unmannered actress who carries this rather ungainly movie on her narrow shoulders.

Nine-year-old Phoebe is an imaginative misfit whose behavior problems at school are rapidly worsening. When teased by her classmates, she spits at them, then engages in self-punishing obsessive-compulsive rituals. She’s forever being dragged to the principal’s office for excruciating lectures. (Campbell Scott, as the shamblingly ineffective principal, is one of the film’s small pleasures.) Phoebe’s father (Bill Pullman) is a loving but checked-out college professor, and her mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman), is a blocked writer, trying and failing to turn her Ph.D. thesis on Alice in Wonderland into a book. Coincidentally, the school’s eccentric new drama teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson, in a classic Patricia Clarksonian role), casts Phoebe as the lead in a school production of Alice in Wonderland, which proves to be both the girl’s salvation and her undoing. Phoebe throws herself into the role with such passion that she begins to lose herself in a fantasy world in which her mother is the Red Queen, her father the King of Hearts, and her therapist (Peter Gerety) a maddeningly judgmental Humpty Dumpty.

If that sounds like the excuse for a lot of gratingly symbolic fantasy sequences, well, right you are. But when Phoebe in Wonderland drops the whimsy and goes for emotional truth, it can be startlingly powerful. A major subplot revolves around Phoebe’s mother’s guilt at “neglecting” her children to concentrate on her work—all this as we see Hillary neglecting her computer to bake cakes, construct magnificent homemade birthday gifts, and squire the girls (Phoebe has a younger sister, Olivia) on a trick-or-treating mission. At first, this story line irritated me—did the movie really intend for us to identify with this perfectly fine mother’s hand-wringing guilt? But Phoebe in Wonderland is actually smarter than that; as Phoebe falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of obsession, we realize that it’s precisely Hillary’s respect for her daughter’s uniqueness that’s keeping her from admitting that the child is not just “special” but sick. Felicity Huffman is superb as the angsty Hillary, triumphing even over a humiliating dyed-black shag haircut.

Though the movie’s disease-of-the-week wrap-up is disappointingly conventional (when you find out what’s medically wrong with Phoebe, you go, “Is that all?”), Phoebe in Wonderland’s final shot is full of enigmatic promise: In her Alice costume on opening night, Phoebe regards the camera with a quizzical, level gaze. I can hardly wait till Fanning’s next movie (she’ll play the lead role in a “fantasy musical” version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker) to see what else that face can do.

Slate V: The critics on Phoebe in Wonderland and other new movies