“Phoebe in Wonderland” raises Elle at Sundance

Never let it be said that the
sisters are trying to slide by on cuteness alone.

Oh, they’re cute all right,
but they also are freakishly good actors. (Dakota freaks me out, period,
but that’s another matter.) At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, a rape scene from Dakota’s film Hounddog

was so disturbing that the film still doesn’t have a
distributor. The scene itself was not graphic, but Fanning’s performance
was so powerful and convincing that conservative groups called for the
arrest of Fanning’s agent and mother.

This year was Elle’s turn in
a less-disturbing, but equally gripping, performance in Phoebe in
. Elle plays Phoebe, a nine-year-old girl whose wild imagination
and obsession with Alice in Wonderland alienates her from classmates
and gets her in trouble with teachers.

Sounds like a sweet little
Disney-like film, right? But several things made me take another look.
First and second, Felicity Huffman
and Patricia Clarkson. What would you pay to be Elle Fanning
in this next photo?

Then I read an interview with Daniel Barnz, Phoebe‘s
writer and director. The Reeler asked Barnz how he, as a first-time
director, managed to get such a high caliber cast and crew to work on
the movie. Here’s part of his answer.

"My ballsy husband, who’s
also a producer on the film, gave the script to Felicity, who was a
neighbor … "

Wait, what? His husband? Yep.
One of the producers is Ben Banrz, Daniel’s life partner. Cool.

My interest piqued, I went
to EW.com to look for a review. What I found didn’t tell me much about
the movie, but did yield this tidbit: Jodie Foster went to Sundance
specifically to see Phoebe in Wonderland.

Turns out, Jodie and Cydney’s
kids go to preschool with Daniel and Ben’s kids. Foster visited the
set during production to offer advice — and she was impressed with the finished product.

"I love this movie. The
performances are real, heartfelt and intimate. I am amazed by Daniel’s
maturity. It goes to show you where your heart is, even when you’re
not conscious of it."

Foster is attached to direct
an upcoming project written by Barnz called Sugarland. Looks
like the whole kids thing turned out nicely for the Barnzes. (For more
Jodie — including some interesting observations about the above picture
— hop over to Dorothy Snarker’s

As you probably suspect by
this time, Phoebe in Wonderland is no Disney flick. Phoebe’s
obsession with Alice is not only identification with the character,
but a way to connect with her mother Hillary (Huffman), who is writing
a book about Alice in Wonderland. Bill Pullman plays Phoebe’s
dad Peter, also a writer.

Phoebe finds a kindred spirit
in her drama teacher, Miss Dodger (Clarkson), and decides to audition
for Alice in the school play. She gets the part, of course.

(An interesting side note:
Phoebe’s friend Jamie — a boy — auditions for and wins the role of the
Red Queen, only to have his red cape defaced when someone scrawls "fagot" [sic]
on it.)

As rehearsals progress, Phoebe
spends more and more time in her own Wonderland, imagining her friends
and family as characters. How can you not love Felicity as the Red Queen?

Some of the film’s richest
scenes are between Fanning and Huffman as Hillary struggles to understand
her daughter.

The reviews concur in praising
Elle Fanning’s performance, by turns funny, entertaining (she sings)
and riveting. And a scene near the end of the film with Huffman reportedly
reduced the entire audience to tears. Seems the Fanning family has another
star in its midst. And that’s something to celebrate.

What do you think? Is Wonderland

worth a visit? I know I’ll be there. They had me at Felicity.