Phoebe in Wonderland
Daniel Barnz, 2008

A while back I was working on a movie about a neurologically atypical child whose mother is having trouble coping. This is the sort of thing that's easy to do poorly, and I was often dubious about the direction it was going. And my co-writer agreed. There were several afternoons when we'd look over the day's work and he'd say, "Well, this is fine for what it is — but what it is is a Lifetime movie." And it'd be back to the drawing board.

Well, here we have a disease-of-the-week movie — in this case, Tourette's — that is actually, the opening credits announce, A Lifetime Pictures Production. It stars a couple of Frasier's multi-episode girlfriends as the Harried, Self-Blaming Mom™ and the Inspiringly Unconventional Drama Teacher™, and in what I thought was one of the oddest casting choices I'd ever encountered, one of the teachers is played by cookbook writer Madhur Jaffrey, though I later learned that she had acted a bit before making a career out of dishing out mulligatawny recipes. Playing the neurologically atypical child is Dakota Fanning's sister Elle, who is the reason to watch the movie, but unfortunately she is saddled with yet another rehash of the oh so very played-out Alice books. (I was complaining about how tired this trope was ten years ago — doesn't anybody listen?) A few high points can't make up for the overly scripted feel of the movie — nor for the '80s sitcom-style Q&A segment at the end about how Tourette's isn't contagious. At least there isn't a 1-800 number to call for more information.

Niagara, Niagara
Matthew Weiss and Bob Gosse, 1997

I was going to say something like "I hope to see Elle Fanning give this kind of performance in a better movie in the future," but of course I can't, because kids grow up really fuckin' fast and she's already a teenager and will be taking adolescent roles — no more child actressin' for her. Case in point about how time flies: I checked to see who played the role of They Couldn't Get Ethan Hawke in this movie and it turned out to be the boy from E.T., all growed up into a sensitive '90s misfit with the greasy hair and the sad face and the inability to look at people while talking to them.

When this movie came out I was living in Orange County and pretty frequently went down to Costa Mesa to watch the $4 matinees of the indie movies that played there — for some reason the really small ones tended to play for a week in New York, Los Angeles, and Costa Mesa before moving on to video. I didn't see Niagara, Niagara, but I saw the trailer a bunch of times and knew that it was about a young woman with Tourette's, so after I watched Phoebe I figured I'd finally check it out. It turns out to be one of those movies about outcast couples driving around, doing crimes, and having off-kilter encounters that keep them from getting apprehended for said crimes. I saw a lot of these in the '90s, most of them featuring Juliette Lewis, who I'm now reading turned down the female lead in this one. Which was probably a good call, as she serves the same purpose as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only with more compulsive sorting of fruit garnishes.

Also their road trip is supposed to be from Poughkeepsie to Toronto, but they spend an hour of running time driving around without ever leaving Dutchess County, and then suddenly we cut to them at the border crossing. That's kind of weird.

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