Precocious Elle Fanning dazzles in ‘Phoebe’

Al Alexander

Studying Elle Fanning’s tour de force in “Phoebe in Wonderland” is akin to watching a 9-year-old Tiger Woods diving a golf ball 400 yards straight down a fairway.

It’s an awesome display of talent that defies explanation. How does someone not even a decade old possess a knowledge and understanding of a craft that mere mortals take a lifetime trying to perfect?

Ah, but why question what you’re seeing when it’s far more enjoyable to just sit back and witness greatness being unfurled. It’s quite a coming-out party, too, with Fanning’s tiny body struggling to contain the Meryl Streep-sized talent hidden within.

As Phoebe Lichten, a shy 9-year-old flummoxed by the realization that’s she not like the other kids in her fourth-grade class, Fanning is vivid in her conveyance of the hurt, anger and loneliness of being different.

And what makes her different is Tourette’s, the syndrome with the pretty name and the ugly symptoms that cause her to speak and behave inappropriately in high-pressure situations. It also sparks bouts of obsessive-compulsive disorder that are even more heartrending than her sudden outbursts.

She draws many a tear, too, and not because she has few friends and, as she says, “no hope.” No, it’s more due to Fanning’s uncanny ability to take us deep inside Phoebe’s cross-wired brain to understand what it’s like having no control over body, mind and speech.

Predictably, “Phoebe in Wonderland” often plays like a disease-of-the-week TV movie. And its forays into fantasy and histrionics are certainly off-putting. Yet writer-director Daniel Barnz keeps you riveted by creating feelings and emotions that are palpably painful.

Of course, he receives a lot of help from a terrific cast that in addition to Fanning, features Felicity Huffman as Phoebe’s queen-of-denial mother, Hillary, and Patricia Clarkson as her school’s new hippie-dippy drama teacher, Miss Dodger.

Is it coincidence that Hillary is writing a book about “Alice in Wonderland” at the same time that Miss Dodger is preparing to direct a musical version of the Lewis Carroll classic? Or is it just a cheap excuse for Barnz to introduce contrived metaphors and a host of fantasy sequences in which Phoebe escapes from her self-loathing by mentally transporting herself to the other side of the looking glass?

It’s the latter, of course, and it needlessly detracts from a story that would be more powerful without the frequent flights of fancy. Besides, Phoebe is nothing like Alice, whom she’s been chosen to portray in Miss Dodger’s prepubescent production. She’s more like the caterpillar, waiting impatiently to transform into the butterfly she longs to be.

Sounds corny, right? And it is, but Fanning has more than enough smarts and talent to sell it. And so do Huffman and Clarkson, who both affectingly portray troubled women who have more in common with Phoebe’s malady than they may realize.

It’s Fanning, though, who you can’t take your eyes off. Much like her older sister, Dakota, she goes far beyond precocious and approaches something closer to a Zen-like shrewdness with displays of maturity and insight that stretch millenniums beyond her age.

She may be a kid, but up on screen she’s a bonafide star.

PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND (PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language.) Cast includes Elle Fanning, Patricia Clarkson, Felicity Huffman and Campbell Scott. Written and directed by Daniel Barnz.

The Patriot Ledger