Phoebe in Wonderland
Cast: Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman, Campbell Scott
Director: Daniel Barnes
Movies about mental illness are a notorious peril.
Come on, we all remember the old network disease of the week movies. That said, for good actors, I don’t think it’s all that hard to portray the mentally ill. The symptoms are documented well enough to manufacture a sufficient imitation. One side thinks you’re great. The other side thinks you’re overdoing it. On to your next project.
The tough thing, I think, is portraying the feelings of the people around them. It is too easy to slip into sentimentality, for instance turning the love of a good woman into a cure. In fairness, a generation ago, doctors knew nearly as little about mental illness as Hollywood. The thinking has advanced, and now it’s time for the artistic world to follow suit.
And so what I find interesting in Phoebe in Wonderland isn’t so much the portrayal of a childhood mental disorder (although Elle Fanning’s sharp performance makes you wonder what they’re feeding those kids), but rather the portrait of a mother trying to do right by her afflicted child.
Felicity Huffman brings an intelligent grace to her motherly role. She wants her daughter to be well, but fears overmedicating her unique personality. She loves her daughter but realizes her troubles are draining her time and productivity. As a non-parent, watching this performance I was struck by how truly terrifying it must be to be in charge of another human being, and particularly someone you love.
What emerges is a fair portrait of a parent who makes mistakes. But unlike more cynical films, these choices are not portrayed as coming from selfishness or a lack of love. And that is the feeling you get from the entire project. In addition to being a strong film about mental illness, it’s also offers a generous depiction of a marriage. I’d take this one over the overheated yelling matches in Revolutionary Road anytime.