“Phoebe in Wonderland” Made Me Cry

3 Feb

My wife and I watched Phoebe in Wonderland Monday night. I don’t want to write a normal, objective film review, because, well, others do it much, much better. Still, I’m driven to write a few words about what stood out to me, including mental illness in children, parental angst, and the performances of Elle Fanning, as 9-year-old Phoebe, and Felicity Huffman, as her mother, Hillary. If you haven’t seen the movie, Phoebe displays symptoms of what had me guessing was OCD, but later turns out to be Gilles de la Tourette syndrome. Phoebe is socially isolated because of her odd behaviors: spitting at kids, cursing uncontrollably, counting her steps, spinning, and washing her hands until they’re bloody.

Since I have a ten-year-old, I was sucked into this story and empathized with Hillary, who refused to acknowledge Phoebe’s self-destructive behavior as anything other than “kids being kids,” refused even the therapist’s diagnosis. “No, she doesn’t have that!” she tell him. We all want healthy, disease-free, kids. We want our kids to be happy. We want our kids to get along with other kids and to make friends easily.

Before Chloe came along, I doubted I would ever have children, feared they would inherit all the unwanted parts of myself: the social fear, the avoidance, the anxiety. Why produce a human being destined for misery? Also–and this turned out to be untrue, thank God–I feared I would be unable to relate to a little baby, a toddler, a young girl. What would I say to this strange little kid? I quickly realized that I could be myself around this little girl, then these two little girls, but no others, without feeling self-conscious.

Hillary also struggles with her identity, her role in the world. She is trying to expand her dissertation into a book, but she’s not currently writing. So is she a writer? She clings to that label and is scared to think of herself as “only” a mother. She blames herself for Phoebe’s unhappiness, feels guilty even attempting to write, because she’s distracted and has less time to give to her two daughters.

The best (and most heartbreaking) scene is where Phoebe tells her mother, through sobs and tears, that she can’t stop the behavior that keeps getting her into trouble. I cried during this scene. During a typical film-induced crying session, a single tear (maybe two) might escape a tear duct, but I remove it before it reaches the middle of my face. Easy! But here I couldn’t keep up with them. Jennifer cried too. On the screen I saw Chloe, in pain, crying to me. And Ainsley: What if some of her “bad” behavior–normal stuff for her age, but behavior I constantly try to stop–is caused by some muted, hidden mental quirk? So I sat there, with fear and misplaced guilt, crying.

I don’t know if the scene would have drained me so if not for Elle Fanning’s performance in it. I just watched the scene again and, again, it tore me up.

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11 Responses to ““Phoebe in Wonderland” Made Me Cry”

  1. linda February 3, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    I remember seeing this movie a long time ago. It was so heartbreaking. I especially remember a part where the little girl couldn’t come in the house because she either had to go around the tree so many times or she has to step on so many stones, something like that. I hope it helped a lot of families to see this.

  2. StuckOutsideTheBox February 3, 2011 at 11:29 am #

    Phoebe In Wonderland is one of my favorite movies. It’s one of few that can actually make me cry (maybe because I avoid “sad” movies). I don’t know what about it moves me so much because I don’t exactly relate to any of it. I’m not a parent and haven’t experienced anything like that but something just gets to me. And I LOVE Elle Fanning. 🙂

    • fightn4it February 6, 2011 at 8:03 pm #

      Yeah, I’m definitely a new Elle Fanning fan after watching this.

  3. Jackie February 3, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    I saw this movie not long ago thanks to my addiction to Netflix Instant Play – it’s a great movie, isn’t it? I’m not yet a mother and didn’t relate to Hillary in that sense. Instead, I was upset at her initially and later moved by her admitting that she struggled to love her own daughter.

    • fightn4it February 6, 2011 at 7:52 pm #

      I love Netflix Instant Play too, they keep adding good stuff.

  4. aimee February 3, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    our neighbor boy has this. i never noticed how bad he had it until his mom pointed out the things he does. the school here is no help what so ever to him either. they treat him like hes a bad kid. i havent seen this movie but i have watched a few others that she brought over to me. its a really sad thing cuz hes such a good kid.

    • fightn4it February 6, 2011 at 7:49 pm #

      What other movies? I’d like to see them.

  5. recreate25 February 4, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    now your post makes me want to watch this movie.

    • fightn4it February 6, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

      If you have Netflix, it’s available as a “watch instantly.”

  6. Snailquake February 6, 2011 at 6:42 am #

    I’m crying a bit too now, and I’ve never even heard of this film.

    I wonder if this is normal, or a reflection of your moving writing… or if it means I have a Condition.

    • fightn4it February 6, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

      Well, I don’t know, but if you were crying reading that, you’ll REALLY be crying watching the movie.

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