Welcome To The Dollhouse

on May 24, 1996 by Lael Lowenstein
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   Winner, Grand Jury Prize. After generating considerable buzz at the Toronto Film Fest where it premiered last fall, Todd Solondz's darkly comic film went on to nab the winning trophy at Sundance. By turns hilarious, poignant and tragic, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" scores as one of the most affecting and carefully rendered portraits of pre-adolescence in years.
   Cursed with mediocrity, 11-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) is the middle child in middle school in suburban New Jersey. While her parents dote on her adorable younger sister Missy (Daria Kaninina) and her older brother Mark (Matthew Faber), Dawn strives desperately to make friends. But school is as hostile as home: Dawn's unrelenting classmates revile her with epithets like "lesbo" and "Wienerdog." Though she secretly yearns for the lead vocalist in her brother's band, the narcissistic Steve (Eric Mabius) remains an unattainable fantasy; Dawn can only hope for the local roughneck.
   To his credit, Solondz fills his film with a memorable array of eye-catching details that effectively cement the viewer's identification with Dawn. With her overbite, awkward body, ill-fitting clothes and thick glasses, Dawn is a world apart from her little sister's starched pink tutu, her brother's Bill Gates haircut and her mother's Marilyn Quayle bob. Along with costumer Melissa Toth, production designer Susan Block has envisioned a fully realized childhood hell, splashed with bursts of bright colors that render Dawn's world a neon nightmare.
   In this self-professed paean to his own childhood, Solondz has captured the essence of pubescent confusion. It's a world where boys can taunt and terrorize girls while deeply yearning for them, and where a parent's withholding desert is the cruellest form of suburban punishment.
   Without either trivializing or hyperbolizing Dawn's predicament, Solondz has found a delicate balance of irony and pathos. From its opening shot of Dawn alone in the cafeteria, to its last image of Dawn on a school bus, headed for a few more years of angst, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" is a gem.    Starring Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sextan, Jr. and Angela Pietropinto. Directed and written by Todd Solondz. Produced by Todd Solondz, Dan Partland and Ted Skillman. A Sony Classics release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 87 min.
Tags: Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sextan, Jr., Angela Pietropinto, Todd Solondz. Produced by Todd Solondz, Dan Partland, Ted Skillman, A Sony Classics release, Drama, desert, New Jersey, fantasy, roughneck
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