Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995): Todd Solondz Breakthrough Film

Since only few people saw or even heard about Todd Solondz’ first feature, “Fear, Anxiety and Depression,” that Goldwyn released in 1989, his most impressive sophomoric effort, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” a stark, often funny, and always poignant comedy about adolescence, should count as his real entry into the movie world. Prospects for theatrical release are excellent for this ultra candid, sharply observed portrait of how to survive junior high and life in the burbs.

Though lacking the sensationalistic–and prurient–sex and violence elements–of a movie like “Kids,” in its unflinching realism, meticulous attention to detail, and deliciously wicked humor, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” establishes itself as an instant American classic about the growing pains of a misfit par excellence. The protagonist is 11-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), the middle child of a bourgeois Jewish family in suburban New Jersey.

Life is one continuous struggle for the unattractive, slump-shouldered girl, who wears thick glasses and the tackiest clothes. As a seventh grader in Benjamin Franklin Junior High, Dawn is tortured and humiliated by both the boys and girls of her class. The first, powerful scene, set in the school’s lunchroom indicates right away how hated and reviled she is. “Are you a lesbian” asks classmate Lolita and before even having chance to respond, the whole group screams, “lesbo, lesbo.”

The home front doesn’t provide much better comfort or solace. Her little sister, Missy (Daria Kalinina), a ballerina who’s always dressed in pink tutu, is clearly her mother’s favorite, and she also suffers in comparison to her older brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), a computer whiz, who has his own band in the garage.

As writer and director, Solondz challenges in a tough, straightforward manner some of the most prevalent family values in our culture. He explores effectively an idea that very seldom gets depicted in American films, i.e. that parents are expected to but might not really love their children equally. He also shows that sisters can actually hate each other with passion; late at night, Dawn gets a kick out of sawing the heads of her sister’s dolls.

The narrative unfolds as a catalogue of Dawn’s (mis)adventures and mishaps–an unjust punishment at school to write an essay about Dignity, a denial of a favorite chocolate cake at dinner time. Yet, there’s healthy–often nasty–humor in the most excruciating moments, as in a scene where Brandon (Brendan Sexton), the school’s bad boy, threatens to rape Dawn, but the harassment is over when he realizes that she has to be back at home at 4:30 and there’s not enough time to execute his plan.

Every creepy detail encountered by children in their transition to the somehow more clearly defined phase of high school grads is conveyed with stark accuracy. But Solondz’s greatest achievement is his resistance to sentimentalize his character or pander to the audience. Dawn is not the Cinderella or “ugly duckling” type who, as in the Hollywood tradition, removes her glasses and all of a sudden a sensitive, beautiful girl is revealed underneath.

Helmer also puts into visual effect a known psychological theory, that deprivation and discrimination are all relative. In fact, Dawn could be just as leathery, foul-mouthed, and discriminatory as her peers, though her victims are different. There’s a lovely scene in which she turns against a tender boy, who’s been trying to befriend her, kicking him out because he’s a “faggot.”

There’s no doubt the material is personal, perhaps even autobiographical, but its universal truths are likely to touch both young and adult viewers, looking back at their own experiences. The entire movie is directed in such an assured style that even the less forceful, rather melodramatic scenes–specifically those around Missy’s kidnap–make their point.

In the lead role, Heather Matarazzo not only has the right look of a lonely girl, desperate to be popular and loved, but also the resilient attitude of a jungle survivor. Shot in West Caldwell, New Jersey, the whole production has an alert intelligence, with particularly strong contributions from lenser Randy Drummond, production designer susan Block and costumer Melissa Toth, who have created a most credible ambience.

“Welcome to the Dollhouse” is unmistakably one of the unqualified hits among a strong line of American indies at this year’s Toronto Film Fest.

A Suburban Pictures production. Produced by Ted Skillman and Todd Solondz. Co-producer, Dan Partland. Directed, written by Solondz. Camera (DuArt color), Randy Drummond, additional camera, Gabor Szitanyi; editor, Alan Oxman; music, Jill Wisoff; production design, Susan Block; art direction, Lori Solondz; set decoration, Avery S. Brandon; costume design, Melissa Toth; sound (Dolby), Alex Wolfe; associate producers, Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente; assistant director, Chad Braden; casting, Ann Goulder.