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Phoebe in Wonderland
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Thursday and Friday

I sort of stumbled out of the gate this year. After my rookie season of covering the Independent Film Festival of Boston in 2007—seeing and reviewing 14 diverse and mostly excellent films—I trained hard in the off-season, prepping myself to avoid the sophomore slump in 2008. This year I would see 15 films at least—no, 17! No, 20! This year I would hobnob with directors and actors, attend all the workshops, schmooze my way through all the parties. This year I would bat a perfect 1.000 as film-fester. This year would be the perfect season.


Alas, it was not to be. Prior obligations forced me to sit out Opening Night, missing Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian (but from all accounts, not missing that much). It wasn’t until Day Two, Thursday, that I was able to get to bat, and either through poor choice on my part, or poor quality on the fest’s part (or both), the first batch of films I saw were discouraging enough almost to sour me on the rest of the weekend. But you ride out the slumps as best you can, you don’t try to force the issue, and you wait for the ship to right itself. And things did get better (mostly) as the festival progressed, though it never quite reached the rosy glow of cinematic satiation that I felt last year.


So here, gentle reader, is how I fared with the fare (four narratives, eight documentaries) I saw, presented in matter of fact and unimaginative chronological order.


My Effortless Brilliance (dir. Lynn Shelton)
My Effortless Brilliance

Director Lynn Shelton’s sophomore film My Effortless Brilliance is neither effortless nor brilliant, really. A loose shambolic portrait of two lifelong friends “breaking up” and then trying to reignite the spark (a great idea, but already done better in the first season of Seinfeld), the film coasts along, bumpily, on the presumed charm and wit of one Sean Nelson, whose prior claim to fame was as the lead singer of the band Harvey Danger. Nelson plays Eric Lambert, a smug, selfish, self-satisfied, self-conscious author in the Dave Eggers vein, an obnoxious lout who has driven away Dylan, the last of his friends.


Two years later the two reunite when Eric invites himself unannounced to Dylan’s woodland cabin in rural Washington. Nothing is ever explicitly said about what happened between them, or why, despite all the incessant yapping (mostly by Eric) but as the weekend progresses, with a lot of drinking, wood chopping, and a misguided midnight hunting excursion after a cougar (the big cat kind, not the other one), the two begin some sort of slow rapprochement.


I like what Shelton’s trying here, a female take on male bonding and the way so much is communicated between men despite nothing ever being said—or maybe not. Maybe nothing is said, despite the blather. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s a confused and confusing film, because neither of the leads is compelling or strong enough to really generate the sort of sympathy that could give the film some poignance. Perhaps with bit more effort, the brilliance would have followed.


Second Skin (dir. Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza)
Second Skin

Tight on time, I darted straight out of My Effortless Brilliance while the credits rolled (skipping the Q&A) and ran to catch Second Skin, which purports to be a sort of generalist overview of the intense world of online games like World of Warcraft and Everquest, but is really about male bonding, perpetual adolescence, and insecurity—I was two for two for the night. Second Skin is formless in the way that documentaries tend to be when they try to make too many points and tell too many stories, with no real overarching thesis to pull it all together and drive the whole thing home.


The main thread of the film follows the sad sack lives of a group of friends who play WoW for stretches of 12-15 hours a day. The game has become their whole lives, all else is secondary—work, friends, family, kids, eating—you know, the important stuff. I know this is not exactly news, but this caricature of the extreme online gamer—lost in an alternate online reality which threatens to supplant the good old mundane 3D world we live in—is not without validity. The problem with Second Skin is that, unlike other docs I’ve seen about people of a similar ilk (including Monster Camp and Darkon, both about LARPers), it never quite manages to portray its subjects in the sympathetic light it needs to, in order to bring the audience in. The online world of gamers remains distant and odd, an impenetrable mystery, and its acolytes look like just the pathetic losers our prejudices lead us to believe.


Which is a shame, because the remainder of the film is actually quite interesting in parts, especially when interviewing experts and academics on the wider, socio-cultural impact of online gaming, and the potentially adverse effects of gaming addiction. This latter hot-button topic is brought home forcefully by the inclusion of Elizabeth Woolley, whose son Shawn shot himself over Everquest, and who has since become a crusader against Internet addiction, and even opened her own rehab center. Alas, most of the film is content to lose itself in the imagined allure of the online world, and misses an opportunity for a more general understanding of what the online gaming world means to the wider population.


Phoebe in Wonderland (dir. Daniel Barnz)
Phoebe in Wonderland

Poor young, precocious, Alice in Wonderland-obsessed Phoebe—stressed at home, stressed at school, unsure of her place in the world, starting to evince signs of OCD, or maybe Tourette’s, or maybe just an overactive imagination. She is prone to little rituals involving twirling and stomping up the front walk, and washing her hands excessively till they bleed, and having vivid visions of Alice leading her down rabbit holes and tea parties on her front lawn. She’s driving her classmates crazy, her teachers crazy, her parents crazy. What oh what will save her from herself? Could it be the school play? Yes, that’ll do quite nicely. And lucky, then, that the school is putting on Through the Looking Glass. Does Phoebe land the role of Alice? Does she overcome her problems and ticks? Are valuable life lessons learned? What do you think?


Phoebe in Wonderland is a confused little movie, which, if I were being charitable I would say complements its young heroine’s confusion. I don’t think it’s that clever, though. It wants to be an earnest and heartfelt family drama, but is hard to take seriously, even for all its seriousness. It also wants to be a whimsical fantasy, but the occasional fabulism it lapses into seems forced and intrusive.


The performances are all uniformly efficient, even quite good at times—Felicity Huffman’s harried mother is the rock that anchors the whole mess, even when Elle Fanning (Dakota’s sister) threatens to take the whole thing off to Wonderland with her screechy hysterics and occasional scenery chomping. Patricia Clarkson, regal and prim as the teacher who teaches Phoebe to believe in herself, is the quiet eye of the storm. They all do their best, but the film bests them all in the end.


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