Saturday, May 7, 2022

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Movie Name:
Welcome to the Dollhouse
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Todd Solondz
Starring: Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton III, Eric Mabius, Matthew Faber, Angela Pietropinto, Bill Buell, Daria Kalinina, Will Lyman, Christina Vidal, Christina Brucato, Ken Leung
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Todd Solondz established himself with this celebrated indie feature, which had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival of 1996, and went on to be featured on many lists of the best of 1996. The film focuses on the story of Dawn Wiener, a bullied twelve year old seventh-grader, who lives in a suburb of New Jersey with her family, who also make her life somewhat difficult. Her older brother Mark, whom she has troubles relating to, is focused solely on his band, while her younger sister Missy is spoiled and seemingly does nothing but dance around the house in a tutu. Her only friend is her neighbor Ralphy who is also bullied at school for being different. Dawn can't seem to avoid getting into trouble, be it at school where she is reprimanded for preventing one of her bullies of copying her answers on a test, or for accidentally hitting one of her teachers with a spitball during an assembly or at home, where she clashes with her sister Missy all the time. In the meantime Dawn develops a crush on Steve, a charismatic wannabe rock musician/high school senior who joins her brother's band, while at school one of her bullies suddenly also becomes a romantic interest. As Dawn navigates these romantic foibles, her home life suddenly takes a sharp turn when Missy, her sister, gets kidnapped (partially as a result of Dawn not telling her to get a ride home from her ballet teacher after her class). As her parents are nearing a nervous breakdown, Dawn decides to investigate Missy's location, going on an adventure in NY.
What has been one of the most interesting traits about Todd Solondz's work is the fact that he manages to illustrate life in the American suburbs with a mix of humor,  humanity and sometimes monstrosity. His characters are always more than just a simple cliché, particularly in his most accomplished films, including "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness". In the case of "Dollhouse", Dawn is the perfect embodiment of the young girl seemingly out of place everywhere (a bit like Lisa Simpson), namely in school with her teachers and colleagues not fully realizing who she is, or the young woman she is becoming, the same going for her family life, where her parents are clearly more invested in their younger daughter, leaving both Mark and Dawn to their own devices. What's interesting about Solondz's point of view is the fact that he mines awkward moments for comedic gold, never de-humanizing his characters in the process (the way he for instance captures the family dinners in both "Dollhouse" and also in "Happiness"). While Dawn is neglected by her seemingly out of touch parents, they're still not completely portrayed as monstrous, since Solondz gives them an opportunity at redemption through the love and interest/obsession they hold for their younger offspring. It's a film that mixes some interesting dramatic points, some that are superficially touched upon, but one that doesn't shy away from illustrating the messiness, awkwardness and humor from every day life and in particular, of conflicting teenage years. The cast is solid with Heather Matarazzo creating a memorable central performance, with apt support from Eric Mabius, Matthew Faber and Will Lyman. A good film always worth revisiting.