Lewis Carroll’s familiar literary work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is the back drop that first time director, Daniel Barnz, uses to explore issues of peculiarity in a child who is a societal misfit. Carroll’s Alice begins her tale of adventures by falling down a rabbit hole which places her in a world of whimsical nonsense. Phoebe (Elle Fanning), like Alice, falls down a dark hole but her world is less charming. Her world is skewed because Phoebe suffers from the neurological disorder known as Tourette’s Syndrome, named after Dr. Georges Gilles de la Tourette, a pioneer French neurologist who first described the condition in 1885. One teenager who suffers from Tourette’s describes it as an outburst due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. He uses this analogy, “Children often lack the chemical impulse that controls telling them to stop or slow down. It’s like two marching bands: The first marching band screams at the other to stop; but, the second is too busy playing to understand.”
Barnz’s heart-wrenching story describes two parents who are too paralyzed by their own selfishness to properly care for each other or their needy children. Phoebe’s mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman), is consumed with Carroll’s writings of Alice in Wonderland---the topic chosen for her dissertation. Phoebe and her sister are also passionate about Alice’s adventures because it draws them closer to their mother. Hillary takes time for her children but has difficulty juggling work and motherhood. She is consumed with feelings of failure, causing her to spiral down her own rabbit hole. Phoebe’s father, Peter (Bill Pullman), an academic, has even less of a clue how to reach out to Phoebe’s world. Unfortunately, the parents don’t take advantage of their couple power to communicate with each other and work toward a solution to their family’s difficulties. Thankfully, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) enters Phoebe’s world as her kindred spirit. She is the gracious yet peculiar drama teacher who introduces herself to the students by poking her head into the classroom and reciting Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwacky. Phoebe auditions for the school play, Alice in Wonderland, and Miss Dodger, who recognizes her keen imagination, casts her for the lead as Alice.
Phoebe’s syndrome is complex and it hinders her from doing the right thing in social contexts. Because of her intelligence and creativity, she is aware that her uncontrolled behavior causes problems for the people in the world she dearly loves. This observation makes her sad! Her sadness pushes her into an imaginary world where she functions best. The varied responses to Phoebe’s behavior from her parents, sister, friends and teachers allow Barnz to take the audience on a journey to a little girl’s whimsical world where nonsense is OK if you play by her rules. When Phoebe has to play by others’ rules, it is harder for her to cope with reality. The intricate narrative takes advantage of language, visual images, and color to mold Phoebe’s world of nonsense and enlighten others to make sense of it.