Welcome to the Dollhouse
1996, R, 97 min. Directed by Todd Solondz. Starring Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton, Matthew Faber, Eric Mabius, Angela Pietropinto, Bill Buell, Daria Kalinina.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., June 28, 1996
Anyone who has suffered the indignity of junior high school will undoubtedly remember the experience as the wonder years: You wonder how you ever managed to live through the agony of it all. For Dawn Wiener -- a seventh-grader whose last name provides endless fodder for peer cruelty -- the rite of adolescence is a horrible one, albeit one in which she brings much of the pain onto herself. Her bespectacled eyes always squinting and her lips perpetually pursed, Dawn defiantly fends off classmates' taunts and gibes with a geeky glare that's scary, to say the least. She's vulnerable, but at that age, shedding your teenage armor to expose the real person underneath is never advised, particularly in the hallways and cafeterias of the public school system. As Dawn, Matarazzo isn't afraid to evoke the horrors of puberty with a straightforward charmlessness: She's gawky, unhappy, and confused, while her tingling of sexual desire downright gives you the shivers. If anything, it's a brave, brave performance that never tries to sentimentalize Dawn's predicament, even when she must submit to the daily torments of life at Ben Franklin Junior High School: “Why do you hate me?” she asks without a trace of pity in her voice, a question to which the persecutor replies, “Because you're ugly.” To varying degrees, films like Heathers, Carrie, and Sixteen Candles have portrayed the casual, unthinking cruelty of youth, especially to its own kind. (To alter a line from Mildred Pierce, it's the young who eat the young.) And while Welcome to the Dollhouse perhaps best depicts that human ugliness, it's extremely funny, even in its most awful moments. It's a nervous laughter, perhaps informed by the knowledge that, as dreadful as junior high school may seem at the time, you can survive the experience and live to chuckle about it later… even though a laugh or two may stick in the craw. Writer/director Solondz has achieved quite an accomplishment in Welcome to the Dollhouse: a movie that will make you perversely nostalgic for the seventh grade, a film that will make you eternally grateful that adolescence happens only once in a lifetime.