Even to herself, Phoebe is not easily known. Her worried parents (nicely played by Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman) wonder whether their troubled and superstitious daughter - who counts steps, stairs, sidewalk cracks - might have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mom doesn't want Phoebe labeled. Dad just wants her to be less . . . opaque.
Fanning (Dakota's kid sis), 9 years old when the movie was shot, is stunning as the high-spirited, moody, dreamy girl who defies all the rules - and the convenient categories girls are sorted into.
So realistic are Phoebe's quicksilver emotions that at first it doesn't seem Fanning is acting at all. That helps to ground the film, which swings seamlessly from the world of grown-up expectations to that of childhood reverie and rebellion.
Can this tangle of blond hair framing a gap-toothed smile learn to see that difference is an asset? Will her psychotherapist be able to solve the mystery that is Phoebe?
With great compassion and greater subtlety, writer/director Daniel Barnz takes us to PhoebeWorld. It is alternately haunted by in-her-face classmates dripping contempt, enchanted by imaginary friends radiating love, and built with a succession of precipices from which she is tempted to jump.
When Phoebe auditions for the school play, Alice in Wonderland, she meets the inspirational Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson, possessed of otherworldly serenity), to whom she is, blessedly, transparent. Where adults and schoolmates are bedeviled by Phoebe's behavior, Miss Dodger is bewitched by the youngster's inner life and bottomless reservoir of creativity.
In rehearsals for the play, Phoebe acts the part - and even more impulsively acts out. Finally, with her parents' advocacy and support, the source of Phoebe's symptoms is revealed and she is, at last, understood and loved. Barnz has made a poignant family movie that, despite its thematic material and brief profanity, is appropriate for mature 10-year-olds and older
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.