Lessons to take from Phoebe in Wonderland: Elle Fanning isn’t half as creepy as her preternaturally grown-up sister, Dakota; and having Tourette’s syndrome just means that you’re an extra-unique snowflake. The feature debut from writer-director Daniel Barnz doesn’t even mention the name of the disorder that’s begun manifesting in its ten-year-old protagonist until the closing scenes. Instead, we take in the symptoms as her mother (Huffman) and father (Pullman) do: a trickle of OCD-esque tics and spitting incidents, swirled in with the usual capricious behavior of an imaginative girl. It’s an insightful means to explore how parents discover (or deny) such syndromes in their offspring—Phoebe sees a psychiatrist, but Mom intervenes when the doctor offers a diagnosis because she blames her own faulty child-rearing for what’s happening.
Unfortunately, the film is insultingly soft in its portrayal of neurological disorders, linking the disease to Phoebe’s fanciful conversations with characters from Alice in Wonderland, the school play in which she portrays the lead. Her “acting out” generally isn’t worth the angst it causes; when her classmates mistakenly blame Phoebe for their gerbil’s death, the girl’s verbal outbursts are practically justified. Now, if she’d actually killed the gerbil: That’d be a movie worth seeing.