A little girl gets picked on. It's amazing how Todd Solondz's stark, painful suburban comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse takes that simple premise and twists it into a wrenching exploration of the dark side of the Wonder Years. Solondz's eleven-year-old protagonist, an archetypically awkward, bespectacled middle school misfit named Dawn Wiener, tries in vain to maintain a positive outlook in the face of hostile classmates, thickheaded teachers, blithely oblivious parents, and a pair of siblings who make Dawn wish she were an only child.
Older brother Mark is a high school computer nerd who, like the dutiful product of the bourgeois 'burbs that he is, equates going to college with deliverance. When Mark's chick-magnet bandmate Steve drops out of high school and moves to New York City to try to become "the next Jim Morrison," Mark shakes his head and sympathetically laments, "He'll never get into a good school now." Younger sister Missy seems born of different parents; she's one of those charmed, golden-haired, ballet-dancing, perfect little girls who grow up to become cheerleaders and homecoming queens and terrorize ugly ducklings like Dawn.
Janis Ian learned the truth at seventeen; Dawn starts taking her lumps at eleven. Her seventh-grade classmates call her "Dogface," and she is so unpopular that even when she saves a fellow student from a beating at the hands of a gang of bullies, he screams, "Leave me alone, Wiener Dog!" Puberty seems like a pretty grim ride. And when Dawn asks Mark if the going gets any easier in high school, his answer offers scant relief: "It's closer to college," he reasons. "They still call you names, but not to your face."
Sorry, Dawn. You're stuck in that corner of hell known as adolescence. The best you can hope for is to maintain your dignity and snatch a few moments of grace out of the mouth of humiliation.
"The movie has been described as Muriel's Wedding meets Heathers, but I prefer The Brady Bunch movie meets Kids," avers writer/director Solondz, a soft-spoken, diminutive, four-eyed geek who bears more than a passing physical resemblance to Heather Matarazzo, the remarkably poised young actress who plays Dawn Wiener. You could easily imagine him getting picked on as a child. Solondz looks completely out of place conducting an interview in a nearly deserted cafe at the posh Mayfair Hotel, but like his plucky young heroine, the filmmaker ignores his surroundings and forges ahead. "I think that the persecuted and the persecutor reside in each of us. Contending with those forces is part of the process of growing up. Some kids who endure this kind of persecution can be warped, damaged for life from this experience, but I think that others may in fact be strengthened by it. Heather brings a certain resilience to the role. You know, she doesn't jump out the window at the end of the movie. It's a story of survival. She's going to endure. She survives with her integrity intact. I don't think it matters whether she becomes a punk rocker after high school, as some people have suggested, or a doctor or a housewife."
Or, for that matter, a hot young independent filmmaker whose lacerating look at the casual cruelties preteens inflict on each other garnered the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Solondz, a New York University film school alumnus, turned his back on moviemaking after his first feature, 1989's Fear, Anxiety, and Depression, bombed. The fledgling filmmaker, distraught over the lack of autonomy afforded by his studio, bailed out of Hollywood and returned to New York, where, for the next five years, he taught English to newly arrived Russian immigrants. But when a lawyer friend presented Solondz the opportunity to helm a low-budget independent feature, he leapt back into the fray.
"The response has been very surprising," Solondz says with a smile. "This movie somehow struck a chord. It's not the sort of thing that you plan on. I had a story and characters that I found very compelling. It's really the most unpromising of premises, you know -- little girl gets picked on. Not box-office gold when you hear that. So for it to take off in this way -- the Sony Classics [distribution deal], Sundance, Berlin -- every time I think it's the best it can be, it gets better. We broke house records in L.A. I feel incredibly lucky. I have lived out every young filmmaker's dream."
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Dawn Wiener should be so lucky. We meet Dawn as she emerges from the school lunch line, food tray in hand, like a Christian stepping into the lion's den. Dawn confronts a cafeteria full of rambunctious, jeering peers. She carefully surveys the teeming room, searching for an empty table where she might eat her food in peace. Finding none, Dawn looks for the next best thing A a vacant seat at an occupied table. We share her palpable sense of relief when a rough-looking girl named Lolita allows Dawn to sit across from her. That temporary comfort evaporates when a gaggle of airhead cheerleaders in immaculate blue-and-white uniforms accosts Dawn and accuses her of being a lesbian. Dawn denies the charge, but Lolita, rather than sticking up for her, betrays her tablemate and falsely claims that Dawn hit on her.
"Why do you hate me?" Dawn pleads.
"Because you're ugly," Lolita replies matter-of-factly. (Of course, there's more to it than that. Lolita's bad-boy boyfriend Brandon has the hots for Dawn, but Dawn doesn't realize it yet.)
That scene is just one example of how Welcome to the Dollhouse dredges up the agony of youth and then sifts it through a sieve of humor devoid of sugarcoating or mawkish sentiment. "The film is a comedy because that's the only way I know how to deal with excruciating torment," confesses Solondz. "I find something both funny and poignant in the struggle to endure humiliation. It's a comedy, but it's a very sad comedy. It's harsh. It's brutal. It's a hard movie for people to take. I doubted myself somewhere along the line during the making of the movie, thinking, 'Well, maybe I'm just too tough. Maybe I should relent, sort of throw a bread crumb out there.' But I stuck to my guns."
Solondz uncannily recalls all the little details that lend veracity and punch to youthful emotional crises such as Dawn's cafeteria trauma. You get the sense that the author/director of Welcome to the Dollhouse shared his protagonist's childhood ordeal, and that the experience marked him deeply. "Obviously I couldn't have written it without my life experience," he notes. "But if this were a book, it wouldn't be a memoir. I mean, just for the record I wasn't a little girl. I don't have a little sister. Nothing in the movie actually happened to me, and yet it's as if it had. Emotionally I feel so very connected, just as much to Dawn as to Brandon, Mark, et cetera. If I were to make a Western, I think it would be no less autobiographical than this movie, although it certainly wouldn't be like a John Ford Western. I am pleased that people do ask if it's autobiographical because I think what they're saying is that it feels real.