Since few people saw or even heard about Todd Solondz’s first feature, the 1989 “Fear, Anxiety and Depression ,” his impressive sophomore effort, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” will effectively count as his real entry into the movie world. A stark, often funny, always poignant comedy about how to survive junior high school and life in the’burbs, pic has excellent theatrical prospects. Though lacking the sensationalistic elements of a movie like “Kids, “”Dollhouse” offers unflinching realism, meticulous attention to detail and deliciously wicked humor as it explores the growing pains of a misfit.
The protagonist is 11-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), the middle child of a Jewish family in suburban New Jersey. Life is one continuous struggle for the unattractive, slump-shouldered girl, who wears thick glasses and tacky clothes. Seventh-grader 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 Dawn can respond, the whole group screams, “Lesbo, lesbo.”
The home front doesn’t provide much comfort or solace. Little sister Missy (Daria Kalinina), a ballerina who’s always dressed in a pink tutu, is clearly her mother’s favorite, and Dawn also suffers in comparison to her older brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), a computer whiz with a garage band.
In a tough, straightforward manner, Solondz challenges some of the most prevalent family values in our culture. He effectively explores an idea that is seldom depicted in American films — i.e., that parents are expected to but might not really love their children equally.
The narrative unfolds as a catalog of Dawn’s (mis)adventures and mishaps, and every creepy detail encountered by children in this difficult transitional phase is conveyed with stark accuracy.
But Solondz resists sentimentalizing his character or pandering to the audience. Dawn is not the ugly-duckling type who removes her glasses to suddenly reveal a sensitive beauty.
The material’s universal truths are likely to touch both young and adult viewers.
In the lead, Matarazzo not only has the right look but also the resilient attitude for a jungle survivor.
Shot in West Caldwell, N.J., the production has an alert intelligence, with particularly strong contributions from lenser Randy Drummond, production designer Susan Block and costumer Melissa Toth creating a most credible ambience.