Phoebe in Wonderland

The critics are divided. And this is no surprise, since this is a film that tackles a difficult subject, one that impinges upon the thorny territory that all parents must contend with: how to understand the anxieties and idiosyncrasies of their children, particularly when they appear to verge on the pathological.

But it is precisely the shifts between the delight of a young imagination and the despondency that seems to emerge from nowhere that Phoebe in Wonderland explores. And it does so wonderfully.

In doing so, it invites us to look at the world through another’s eyes, specifically the eyes of a young child who struggles to give meaning to the shifting panoramas that life has to offer, and which leave her vacillating between hope and despair. Not insignificantly, it also offers us a glimpse at the labor of love during which this child – and her family – work through that treacherous terrain.


The film opens with the “memories” of a young Phoebe as she is twirled through the air in her mother’s arms. Everything is a delightful yet dizzying blur, until her eyes are able to focus on the woman at the center of her world, and is able to witness the delight she takes in seeing Phoebe’s own thrill and sense of wonderment.

For Phoebe, this is the joy of discovery, of apprehending a wondrous world “out there” separate from herself. Her mother is the ever-present mediator of that enchanted world. She is the one who provides young Phoebe with many of those first experiences of this fascinating landscape. She also shares in the child’s delight, orients her to the sometimes confusing surfeit of sights and sounds, and even provides her with the words she learns to use for naming the things that fill the world and for describing the impressions that flood her senses.

The Beginnings of Unease

“Being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing”

At some point, however, the mother as mediator-of-experience must stand aside as the child begins to establish a place and identity for herself in the world.

As Phoebe does this, she soon realizes that it is not merely a playground for her personal delight. She discovers that this world also has certain rules and expectations – that it makes demands on her – and that it will respond to her according to her ability or willingness to comply with them. In encountering this “harsher” facet of life among the living, Phoebe learns that “she” is shaped as much by her own will and imagination as by those that inhabit this external world. And this includes her mother who, until then, was her primary source of comfort and joy.

Phoebe discovers, in other words, that “mother” is not merely the mediator-of-experience. She’s not merely a “mirror” that shares in her joy and delight; she is not merely the one who shares in the pleasures of what the world has to offer. In addition to this, Phoebe discovers that “mother” is also the one who, rather than sitting beside her side, stands in opposition to her and makes demands that she behave and feel differently.

For a child, the changing visage of the mother reflects the power of the gods, for it is in her face that she can see herself, and the world. But what she sees changes. At times, this seems unpredictable if not arbitrary. She can bask in the glory of her mother’s approval but, at the same time, the mirror that she provides can make her wither into nothingness.

As Phoebe soon learns, it is not just her mother that wields this power. The world is populated by other “giants” that exercise the authority to define right from wrong, and who enforce those definitions with rewards and punishments that make her feel big … or small.

Early in the film, we witness several short scenes of Phoebe’s first day at school after summer vacation and her teachers explain the rules of the classroom. A large poster sits at the front of each class, describing the positive character traits of “Good Job Jenny.” As we would expect, these describe the model student whose desk is kept neat and tidy, who is in the classroom when the bell rings, who knows how to obey teacher’s directions, and who listens quietly when others are speaking.

These are, of course, necessary elements for one’s “education,” but Phoebe can’t help but be confused by some of these expectations, as is evident in this exchange with one of her teachers:

Teacher: The next rule is: Good Job Jenny asks questions only when it’s time for asking questions.
Phoebe (with raised hand): How will we know it’s time for asking questions?
Teacher: What did I just say about asking questions?
Phoebe: But …
Teacher: You may ask when you can ask questions when it’s time for asking questions.
Phoebe: Huh?

Wonderland Makes an Entrance

In the midst of these serious and confusing recitations of regulations, a mysterious figure – who we later learn is the drama teacher, Miss Dodger – enters the room, speaking a very different sort of language:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

As it turns out, this is an invitation to audition for the school’s production of Alice in Wonderland with which Phoebe is quite familiar since Lewis Carroll’s famous writings are a favorite of her mother. In fact, when she was younger, she spent many happy hours with the homemade diorama her parents had given her, composed of figures and contraptions inspired by the characters and events of Alice’s adventures through the looking glass.

Miss Dodger is impressed with Phoebe’s ability to imagine herself as Alice and casts her as the lead in the play. And, for a moment at least, Phoebe feels as if she has found a new ally in this mushrooming – yet exceedingly baffling – world of dos and don’ts that will keep her unease at bay.


“Turn out your toes. Remember who you are. Don’t get fired.”

Yet, even prior to this turn of fortune, Phoebe had begun to show signs of severe anxiety. And over the course of the school year, it seems to get worse.

Phoebe develops elaborate rituals designed to provide a sense of control over the swirling uncertainties that surround her. Each moment of doubt produces its own sequences of ritual action. The cracks on the floor in her school acquire an almost magical quality, as she tests her ability to avoid treading on them and “killing” her mother (“step on a crack, break your mother’s back”). Following the auditions for the school play, she develops a complicated series of jumps, twirls, and claps to ensure she gets the part of Alice, a part that has come to represent her lifeline to a world that makes sense.

Later, when she learns of the possibility of getting “fired” from the play, she learns more about the power of ritual from her friend Simon, who was cast as the Queen of Hearts:

Simon: When I wanted my baking kit, I prayed to God every night for a whole month to get it.
Phoebe: Is that what you have to do?
Simon: Well, if you want something a lot, you have to pray. Or do something you hate. And God will see [that] you deserve it.
Phoebe: I don’t believe in God.
Simon: Neither do I. (pause) But I did get the baking kit.
Phoebe: So, you have to pray?
Simon: Or do something you hate.

While Phoebe’s rituals and obsessive hand-washing may seem strangely superstitious, the reasoning behind them is not so different from religious practices that have sought to appease a dangerous but all-powerful God, soliciting the blessings of the divine by fully enacting one’s wretchedness. Or rituals that seek to purify.

In a word: penance.

Superstitious or not, these rituals give voice to a desperate need for order and kindness in a world that so often seems bereft of meaning. Even for a child.

Through the Looking Glass

“You might just as well say that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same as ‘I sleep when I breathe.'”

The adults in Phoebe’s life are baffled. And worried. Her teachers don’t know what to make of her behavior. The trips to the principal’s office become more frequent, and her parents aren’t quite sure how to respond to the repeated inquiries about Phoebe’s “problem” or the requests that something be done to help her. The therapist has developed a diagnosis that’s frightening.

It’s Phoebe’s mother in particular who is most vociferous in wanting to protect her daughter from the labels that are likely to be attached to her, and the stigma that is likely to follow. She believes – quite strongly – that Phoebe’s conduct is quite normal; that everyone else is too eager to jump to conclusions that are not warranted. In a conversation with her husband, she draws on her own personal experience to make precisely this point:

When I was a kid, I counted telephone poles from the car. If I missed one, we’d crash. Nobody labeled me. It’s just the way kids are.

And in response to the therapist who has just proposed his diagnosis of Phoebe, she complains:

No, she doesn’t have that. You are all so ready to label, medicate, and move on, as if a name means something. As if all the answers are in a bottle! I’ve seen that solution. I’ve seen it all around me. And then there’s a life of side-effects and dulled minds! Your profession just doesn’t like kids to be kids.

In the midst of these backstage negotiations among the adults, Phoebe’s rituals become more pronounced and her visions of Wonderland become more vivid. In one, reminiscent of the images with which the film opens, Phoebe runs in circles around the tree in their front yard, just as she was twirled by her mother years earlier. In this vision, however, Phoebe’s mother is the Red Queen. And rather than the simple delight of mother-as-mirror in this strange and fascinating world, here she plays the role of the Red Queen who advises Phoebe how to move through the world:

Red Queen: Of course, it takes all the running you can do to stay in one place. If you want to go someplace else, you have to go at least twice as fast as that!
Phoebe: But if you run as fast as you can and just stay in one place, how will we ever get anywhere?
Red Queen: You just say whatever you say, don’t you?
Phoebe: Everyone tells me that. I don’t mean to be rude. … It’s nice when I hear you say those things. It makes me think that everything isn’t so fixed.
Red Queen: It’s not! Genius!!

Even as the adults are struggling behind closed doors about her “condition,” Phoebe is engaged in a valiant struggle that – unlike the adults so concerned about her fate – actually converses with the other figures in her life who, in this and subsequent imaginings, appear to her in the guise of different characters from Alice’s Wonderland.

Of course, the question remains: what are we – and she – to make of these visions?

The Mother’s Dilemma

“Summoning the courage …”

It should come as no surprise that Phoebe’s mother is resistant to the diagnoses offered to “explain” her daughter’s behavior. For not only is she Phoebe mirror, providing her daughter with an image of herself and a home base from which she can summon the courage to explore the world on her own.

But Phoebe does the same for her. She is a mirror, as well. A daughter is, after all, a “reflection” of her mother, and a measure of her success … or failure. In light of this, how is a mother to respond to claims that her child is maladjusted?

Phoebe is certainly not the center of her mother’s universe. She has other interests and other avenues that provide validation in her life. Like her husband, she’s a writer. Although she had to postpone that avocation until the children were old enough to attend school, she’s finally beginning to find (limited) time to return to that work. She hopes to transform her graduate school thesis into a book, the title of which could just as well serve as the title of this film, were it not for its academic unwieldiness, Precarious Enchantment: Wonderland and Perversion.

Despite her aspirations – or, perhaps, because of them – she’s plagued by writer’s block. She also struggles with resentment about her husband’s freedom from family obligations, and the seemingly incessant demands her two daughters make on her time and energy. What’s more, while her husband seeks her celebratory support when he brings news that his own book is getting published, she can’t help but feel slighted that he hasn’t taken the time or interest to read any Lewis Carroll.

It comes as no surprise, then, that she is beleaguered by a certain feeling of smallness. Just like Phoebe.

An early (and telling) scene, in which she hosts dinner for several of her husband’s friends, bears an eerie resemblance to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Like Alice, she is clearly out-of-place and confused by the conversation that surrounds her. The dinner guests politely inquire about her writing and the joys of motherhood but, as far as she’s concerned, there’s nothing but a looming gulf that separates her domesticated life from those representatives from the outside world. Sitting across from her husband, it’s difficult not to feel her sense of banishment from the comfort and confidence they seem to share.

Bridging Worlds, or Letting Go of the Mirror

“It must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream … but then I was part of his dream, too. Which do you think it was?”

Each of the worlds in the household collide when, in the midst of the children’s playful (and noisy) request for a baby brother, the Father blurts out to Phoebe: “Do you think your mother could handle another one like you?”

Stunned, the family falls quiet, as Phoebe runs to her room.

However inappropriate this might have been, it sets the stage for precisely the kind of encounters with – and about – Phoebe that the parents have avoided. After all, her “compulsions” are both frightening and seem to reflect badly on them as parents. Yet, when Phoebe’s father follows her to her bedroom to offer an apology, he makes several astonishing discoveries, including something they share in common:

Father: I wanted to find a story to tell you – Greek myth or fable – to explain what happened to me tonight. Then I realized: that’s what my father used to do. Something would happen, and [then] tell the story, and then analyze it. Anything to avoid saying it. What I need to say is: I’ve never been so ashamed of myself. The words just came out!
Phoebe: Yes, that’s what it’s like

Phoebe’s mother makes some discoveries about herself, too, as she lets out a torrent of words, venting her anger to her husband:

I’m mad that I want her to be different. And I’m mad that she is different. I’m mad that she’s acting out ’cause she’s unhappy. And I don’t know why she’s unhappy. And I can’t make her happy. But her bizarre [drama] teacher can.

I’m mad that I blame myself for the way she acts. I’m mad that I think of mothers as just mothers. And I’m mad that I care if I’m a good one.

I’m mad that when you said that to her, I know you were right: I couldn’t take another one of her.

I’m mad that I’m not writing. And I’m mad that some day and I will be seventy and going on about my kids because I won’t have anything else because I didn’t do anything important.

And I’m mad that sometimes … I’m not scared of that at all. Because my children make me live.

They make me live.

Unexpectedly, Phoebe’s mother and father both learn about the dangerous hold – enchantment – of the “mirror” that has held them captive in relation to their daughter. For the father, Phoebe has been the negative (mirror) image of his rationality and discipline. Her obsessions have made no sense to him until, out of the blue, he discovers that he is also prone to outbursts that belie his sense of propriety and control. For the mother, Phoebe has been a reflection of the insecurities and uncertainties she has about her own life. In giving vent to her frustrations, she comes to realize that her anger is less about Phoebe than her own ambivalence about being a mother.

And with these insights, the ground has been cleared for them to establish a new – and different – relationship with Phoebe. And with each other.

Phoebe Lichten

“Can you really keep from crying just by considering things?!”

This does not set the stage for a conventional happy ending. In fact, as Phoebe later states, “Starting now, it’ll get worse before it gets better.”

What follows, then, is not the kind of denouement that we have been trained to expect, since the knotted problem that has plagued Phoebe and her family does not disappear. However, in its stead, we are provided a different set of lenses by which to understand the dilemmas that have defined this family.

It seems apt to end, then, with a nod to the name that the filmmakers have given to this young protagonist:

Phoebe is the third goddess in Greek mythology to take possession of the Oracle of Delphi. Her name, most frequently taken to mean “bright” and “radiant,” is also associated with the Greek verbs “to purify” and “to prophesy.”

– paraphrased from

Lichten is in fact two words.

The first is related to the adjective licht meaning “bright,” “luminous.” It stems from the Indo-Germanic root leuk-, “shining white,” as in the words leukos, lux, lumen. In this sense, lichten used transitively, means “to make bright, to illuminate.”

However, lichten is also a form of leichten, related to the adjective leicht, meaning “of little weight, not heavy.” Its Indo-Germanic root appears in the Sanskrit laghu and the Greek elaphros, elachys, “small, lightweight.” … Lichten in the sense of leichten, always transitive, means to make less heavy or to heave up and carry.

– excerpted from Intimations of Morality

~ by mistified on June 1, 2009.

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