Phoebe in Wonderland (2008) is a movie about a nine year old girl with Tourette Syndrome. The movie shows her and her family's struggle as she starts to engage in obsessive rituals, inappropriate behavior like spitting and saying mean things, and repeating what other people have said. At the same time that all of this is happening, she is in a play of Alice in Wonderland where her symptoms disappear because she is able to hyper-focus. Her drama teacher, Ms. Dodger is really the only person who can get through to Phoebe, but after Phoebe jumps from the catwalk in the theater, Ms. Dodger is fired. There are other meaningful subplots such as Phoebe's classmate Jamie who is harassed because the other kids think he is gay, and Phoebe's mother who struggles with wanting to work and being a mother.
Review by Rev. Katie:
This movie was powerful in so many ways, not all of which I will have enough room to talk about here. For me, these themes stood out the most:
- Phoebe believes scary things people tell her and then in order to avoid them, she creates rituals. One ritual she has is something I did when I was little too. The first time we see Phoebe with "odd" behavior, she is repeating "Step on a crack, break your mother's back," and she is avoiding the cracks in the tile floor. I did the same thing when I was little, avoiding cracks wherever I walked. Phoebe also has compulsive hand washing, which I have to this day, thinking that she needs to wash her hands a certain number of times in order to do well in her audition or make something else good happen. Then her friend tells her that she either needs to pray or do something she hates in order to get the part of Alice in the play, so Phoebe starts rituals of jumping and clapping with a pattern and number of squares on the walkway outside and on the steps. When I was little and walking up stairs, I always had to jump two steps in order to feel safe. What this shows is that for some of us, our brain latches on to superstition or fear and desperately makes us try anything in order to be safe. This means what we say to kids really matters and tormenting kids with scary things is seriously life threatening.
- Throughout the movie, Phoebe explains so well what it is like in her brain. She says at one point "I can see myself wrecking and ruining and I don't know how to stop." There is a heart wrenching scene with Phoebe crying in her bed to her Mom that she does not know why she does these things. It is also eye opening when Phoebe's father blurts out an unkind statement to her and when he goes to apologize he says, "The words just came out." Phoebe replies that the same thing happens to her. This is when her father is able to understand more of her inability to control her behavior.
- At one point, Phoebe and her sister and running around the table, giggling and asking their parents to have a baby. Their father clearly gets overwhelmed with the noise and the stress, and blurts out: "Really? Do you think your mother could handle another one like you?" Immediately Phoebe runs away and starts into ritual jumping of squares on the tile floor and is saying "screw you!" She is trying to calm down and tell herself that what her father said was not true. Phoebe also sees and speaks to characters from Alice in Wonderland when she is scared or upset and in this scene she asks them if she is the reason why her mother would not have another child. Again, Phoebe is trying to calm herself and tell herself she is not a bad person. This scene shows so clearly how insulting and shaming a child with difficult behavior only triggers the behavior and makes them think they are bad. If this happens over and over again, the child can not longer fight off the belief that they are bad and they start to believe it. By the time they reach adulthood, it is programmed into them and this is their default belief about themselves so even their own beliefs then trigger the negative behaviors. Fortunately in the movie, the father apologizes, which really is important. None of us will be perfect parents, but sincere apologies and letting your child know that your reaction was due to your problem, and not because they are bad, is one way we we can help them not end up believing these things about themselves as an adult and making the illness worse.
- There is a scene where Phoebe's younger sister says she wants a different sister, one she does not have to take care of and does not have whatever Phoebe has. The mother insists that Phoebe is fine, but the little girl rightly says that the mother has no idea what is going on. This scene not only shows how hard it can be for siblings who know what is going on but also for parents who are unwilling to see that their child may need help. For most of the movie, the little sister is the only one in the family who even helps Phoebe, even participating in some of her rituals. The sister just gets tired of basically being the only adult in the house.
- Phoebe's parents eventually take her to a psychiatrist who diagnoses her with Tourette Syndrom, but Phoebe's mother insists this is not true and that Phoebe's behavior is her fault, so she fires the psychiatrist. Phoebe's mom does not want her labeled, thought of as "less than," and medicated leading to a life full of side effects. This is understandable. The problem is the mother blames herself, and thinks she can fix Phoebe, rather than accepting the diagnosis and looking for a better way to handle it if she does not want to use medications and such. There is too much shame in our culture surrounding brain disorders so parents become scared and are unable to see what is going on and search for the right kind of treatment for their child. I was a bit disappointed that the movie ends with the parents accepting the diagnosis and Phoebe explaining it to her class without going into what they do to help her. It might be assumed that they went with the medications and that the psychiatric diagnosis and now somehow things are ok. This ending risks promoting the idea that medication works for everyone and cures all. This mentality leads a lot of people to judge parents who use alternative methods of treatment for their children. But, no movie can be perfect or cover every aspect of life. There is not enough time!
- Twice Phoebe gets punished by her teacher and principal for spitting on other kids when the kids have chased, berated, and scared her and she has asked them to stop but they won't. This happens way too often- a child gets pushed to their limit and then punished while the larger group of bullies is defended, all because this child is "different." Even my son asked "Why is it always the nice kids who get in trouble when the mean kids do something wrong?" He said the approach of the drama teacher was much better: Rather than taking a punishment approach when someone writes "faggot" on Jamie's costume, the drama teacher addresses the whole group and teaches them something. This actually created a change in the way people treated Jamie rather than punishment which creates no understanding. It's a very powerful scene.
- The drama teacher, Ms. Dodger, is the only person who understands working with children and how to help them be their best selves. She allows children to make decisions on their own, encourages the kids to be the directors of the play, and is non-authoritarian. Unfortunately, after accidentally saying something hurtful to her friend Jamie, Phoebe runs and climbs up the catwalk. Phoebe retreats into Wonderland for solace and looks down the ladder of the catwalk and sees the hole that brought Alice to Wonderland, so she jumps. It is not a long jump and Phoebe gets a sprained wrist. However, the drama teacher gets blamed for this and there is a terrible, yet typical, scene when the principle questions Phoebe and distorts what she says to make it look like Ms. Dodger told her to jump. Ms. Dodger was the only person who actually helped Phoebe and the other children. In fact, it is Ms. Dodger who gives Phoebe the most beneficial advice- that one day she will see herself as she is, even the parts that are different, accept herself, and on that day she will feel love. Far too often, it is the more creative teachers who know how to help children with brain disorders, but few people ever listen to them.
- After the jump off the catwalk, Phoebe asks her parents if people usually feel hope. They think she did not feel hope and that is why she jumped. Rather, Phoebe explains that she felt hope when looking into Wonderland and that is why she jumped, but in the real world she feels no hope. This illustrates how people often misinterpret behavior that seems to them like self harm. Also, when Phoebe's mother confronts Ms. Dodger and mentions her daughter does not feel hope, again Ms. Dodger gives the best advice- that sometimes we don't feel hope but we keep on anyway, and then we know we have it.
"This movie will change your life.
The movie was awesome. I think it kind of showed me what Mommy's life was like when she was little.
I think teachers could learn a lot from Ms. Dodger, like that kids can do things on their own and they do not need you watching over them every second.
Parents could learn to not think when something goes wrong that it is their fault. In the part of the movie where Phoebe is crying with her Mom in bed and the Mom asks "What's wrong" and Phoebe says she does not know, the Mom did not keep asking her what was wrong. If we don't know what is wrong, don't keep asking us anymore because it really gets annoying and it puts too much pressure on us.
People can also learn from the movie that if you are different, that does not mean you are bad, it just means you are special. If someone ever punishes you for being different, then you should talk to your parents and have them fix it. If someone punishes you for being different, that is very mean and it can make you feel bad about yourself."
Both Jeffrey and I recommend that you watch this movie and talk about it afterwards. We both learned things about one another and how to help each other when we are having a difficult time.
I know now not to try and fix everything for him when he says he is not sure what is wrong, and he knows that he should always tell me if he ever starts to feel overwhelmed like Phoebe's little sister. We also talked about apologizing when we say unkind things to each other and how that makes all the difference in how he sees himself as a person. Of course, we also discussed that you you can't just be mean all the time and think if you apologize that it makes everything better. You need to try and act better each time.
When you watch the movie, let us know in the comments what spoke to you.
Rev. Katie and Jeffrey