The young filmmaker Todd Solondz insists that the unsettling picture of preteen trauma he gives us in his astonishing Welcome to the Dollhouse is not autobiographical--even though Heather Matarazzo, the eleven-year-old actress he cast in the part of a lonely, terrorized seventh-grader, bears a striking physical resemblance to him, and the awful things he knows about the social cruelties of junior high school and the follies of blind parents and unthinking teachers are things best understood by victims.
In any event, this deserving winner of the 1996 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance is one scary and heartrending look at tormented children, in a time when such studies have become alarmingly prevalent at the movies and in the news pages. If, just for a start, we can judge by the drug- and sex-addled teenagers of last year's Kids or the dark memoir of adolescent heroin addiction in The Basketball Diaries, the American family may be in a lot deeper (and different) trouble than the self-appointed soul doctors of the Right or the hand-wringing urban sociologists are telling us.
The helpless protagonist of Dollhouse is a bespectacled suburban girl named Dawn Weiner--nicknamed "Weiner Dog" by the many classmates who revile her. Friendless and floundering, this little outcast is the target of every spitball at assembly, the butt of every mini-cheerleader's nasty joke, an object of scorn for the mean, smirky boys slouching through the halls at Benjamin Franklin Junior High. Dawn is, of course, the reflection of their pubescent fears and insecurities, but the other kids don't understand that yet. She is also a nagging reminder of how teachers fail, and the sullen, wary teachers don't understand much about that, either.
Things don't get any better inside the Weiner family's beige, split-level ranch. Curled up in a ball on the couch, watching bright-eyed teenagers strut their stuff on a TV quiz show, Dawn is the picture of longing and isolation. For the moment, though, at least Mom and Dad aren't home. The former (Angela Pietropinto) is a scold who favors Dawn's little ballerina sister and even insists that Dawn tear down her lonely backyard clubhouse to make way for an anniversary party. Dear old Dad (Bill Buell) is a cold wall of detachment, and when a family crisis arises, he takes to his bed. There's also a nit-picking older brother named Mark (Matthew Faber) who quite clearly was a pariah himself in junior high and has now moved on to the limbo of high school nerd-dom.
In other words, Dawn Weiner has nowhere to turn for love and affection, and because she, too, needs some underdog to kick, it isn't long until she's sawing the head off her little sister's Barbie doll. It isn't long, either, until a sneering hunk named Steve (Eric Mabius), who has deigned to join brother Mark's garage band, becomes the impossible object of her half-formed desire. As if all this weren't enough, the filmmaker also throws in a tough little thirteen-year-old from the wrong side of the tracks (Brendon Sexton Jr.) who hides his loneliness behind a show of aggression.
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Quite a group. Quite an outlook. Quite a shock. Compared with Solondz's acid-etched portraits and his bitter gift for the absurd (yes, there are laughs aplenty in here), The Simpsons comes off as Ozzie and Harriet. And you consider why teenagers write secret poetry and what drives many adult artists, too--revenge against the oppressors of old, therapy for the tormented soul. I don't know Todd Solondz, but his movie is so chillingly true to life, so authentically felt, that I don't want to know the details of his childhood. As a young adult, though, he went to NYU film school, then made a movie debut for Goldwyn called, aptly enough, Fear, Anxiety and Depression that was so disastrous he dropped out for seven years. Dollhouse is just his second feature, and the scene in which Dawn takes a hammer to an embarrassing family videotape has a nice resonance to it: You can't help thinking each blow is also meant for the goons out in Hollywood.
Sorry for all the dime-store psychoanalysis. It's just that Welcome to the Dollhouse is the kind of film--raw, true and disturbing--that naturally beckons it, and Solondz is the kind of talented moviemaker whose mystery you yearn to solve.
As for Dawn Weiner, squinting through thick glasses and desperate to escape from preteen prison, we are left to wonder if she will finally manage it even as well as her damaged brother. Because this is no wallflower concealing a rose, as in the romanticized ugly-ducking movies of old: Dawn gets bad grades, plays the piano poorly and takes a terrible emotional beating wherever she stumbles. Adulthood may be the only way out, but we wonder what kind of scars she'll take into an uncertain future. In fact, we wonder if she'll get there at all. That's the most chilling thought buried in one of the most powerful little movies of the year.
Welcome to the Dollhouse. Written, produced and directed by Todd Solondz. With Heather Matarazzo, Brendon Sexton Jr., Matthew Faber, Eric Mabius and Angela Pietropinto.