Last year then 12-year old Dakota Fanning came here to Sundance with a film called Hounddog in which she made headlines due to a fairly graphic rape scene. This year, her little sister Elle is here with her film Phoebe in Wonderland — and no, it does not involve any rape scenes. In fact, it is a very light and fluffy fairly tale-esque story about a little girl who is just struggling to fit in.

Fanning plays Phoebe, the daughter of two writers (Bill Pullman and Felicity Huffman) who has a wild imagination that leads her to be an outcast at school. When the other kids pick on her, she lashes out, not understanding why she can’t stop herself from hurting herself and others. The only time she is calm and at peace is when she is rehearsing for her role in the school play of “Alice in Wonderland” at the direction of her eccentric theater teacher (Patricia Clarkson).

In Phoebe’s world, the characters of “Alice in Wonderland” are her imaginary friends, the only people who truly understand her, save for her lone real friend Jamie (Ian Colletti). But as her behavior becomes more and more strange, it puts strain on her life at home with her parents and ultimately puts her dreams of playing Alice in the school play in jeopardy.

This is one of those cute, whimsical tales that turn drama about three quarters of the way into the movie. It is easy to fall in love with the character of Phoebe, as little Elle Fanning gives one hell of a performance. She is funny, she sings and she delivers a riveting, teary-eyed scene toward the end of the film that will leave few dry eyes in the house. Forget about Dakota, little Elle is going to be quite an actress.

The only problem I see with Phoebe in Wonderland is that it just may not appeal to the everyone. It could be a magical family flick, but it has a very serious dramatic sub-story involving Phoebe’s parents and how they handle her strange behavior. As well, it is a bit too light and fluffy to be a really serious film. Ultimately it is a relatively cute, heavy hearted film that should be marketed toward people like my mother — as it would leave her a sobbing wreck by the end of the film. It is certainly not the best film I’ve seen this week, but certainly not a waste of time.

Grade: C

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