Welcome to the Dollhouse (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Welcome to the Dollhouse, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, is Todd Solonz' counterattack against the Wonder Years nostalgia that clouds movie memories of adolescence. After all, junior high school isn't the endless series of halcyon days that television and films would have us believe. Especially for those who aren't members of the "in" crowd, the pre-teen and early teen years can be an extremely painful time. In this impressive debut, Solonz doesn't pull any punches in conveying the side of junior high that The Wonder Years never depicted: the naked cruelty that some boys and girls suffer at the hands of their classmates, their teachers, and even members of their own family.

This is the story of Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), or "Dogface Weiner", as just about everyone at school calls her. Bespeckled and not blessed by perfect features or a good complexion, Dawn is not a popular girl. A loner by nature, she has only one friend -- a sickly elementary school boy who is as much an object of derision as she is. At school, she is pelted by spitballs and epithets. When she asks a classmate "Why do you hate me?", the response is simple and succinct: "Because you're ugly." The teachers at Benjamin Franklin Junior High seem to go out of their way to humiliate Dawn, accusing her of grade-grubbing and forcing her to write essays about the meaning of dignity. At home, as the middle child, she is the most frequently neglected. Her older brother is a nerdy computer whiz and her younger sister is her parents' favorite. The only time Mom and Dad take notice of Dawn is when she does something wrong.

One might wonder how a man, Solondz, could write, produce, and direct such an insightful examination of preteen female pain. At Dawn's age, however, there's not that much difference between the indignities and humiliation endured by boys and girls who aren't functioning members of specialized cliques. Loners become magnets for despite, and gender has little to do with it. Dawn could just as easily be Don, and, while script changes would be necessary, the themes and emotion would have remained on the same level.

Despite its grim subject matter, Welcome to the Dollhouse isn't a complete downer. Dawn is resigned to her fate, and, though her dearest wish is to be popular, she's able to accept her lot. Solondz has injected a fair amount of natural humor into his script. Some of the audience's laughter will be in response to uneasy situations, but there are a few genuinely funny situations, such as when Dawn avenges herself against her fairy princess sister (who often appears on screen to the strains of "The Nutcracker") by taking a saw to a doll's neck.

Solondz's plot becomes a little too ambitious. Instead of focusing on all the simple, everyday indignities of Dawn's life, he tries for something more momentous. As Welcome to the Dollhouse moves into its final third, kidnapping, possible child molestation, and drug dealing have all been added as plot elements. Dawn is still the central character, but it's less easy to identify with her as her circumstances arc beyond the realm of the mundane. Welcome to the Dollhouse is at its best when we forge an intimate identification with the main character, who embodies the adolescent insecurities of even the most popular and well-adjusted pre-teen.

The most effective scene of Welcome to the Dollhouse is the first one, which shows Dawn entering a junior high cafeteria. Alone, she drifts through the room, looking for a place to sit. No one wants her at their table, and, when she finally finds an unoccupied seat, she's informed that the reason it's available is because someone barfed there earlier. In many ways, this sequence is excruciating to watch, but it's also right on target.

Heather Matarazzo is entirely believable in this unglamorous role -- we can feel Dawn's isolation, longing for a "normal" life, and bitterness at the way everyone rejects her. When a boy threatens to rape her, Matarazzo conveys the girl's ambivalence. Rape is a horrible, violent crime, but Dawn so desperately wants acceptance that she's willing to submit to almost anything. Her relationship with that boy, incidentally, is one of the film's most interesting.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is sort of like Angus, but without the false Hollywood sheen and forced happy ending. Solondz's perceptiveness is acute, and, at one time or another, it will make most viewers feel uncomfortable. It's not a perfect motion picture, but, as far as taking a cold look at an over-romanticized period of childhood, it's uncompromising. Welcome to the Dollhouse won't make you wistful for your lost junior high years; it will make you glad you grew up.

Welcome to the Dollhouse (United States, 1996)

Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Heather Matarazzo, Victoria Davis, Christina Brucato, Christina Vidal, Siri Howard, Brendan Sexton Jr., Telly Pontidis
Screenplay: Todd Solondz
Cinematography: Randy Drummond
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:27
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1