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Welcome to the Dollhouse

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Welcome to the Dollhouse

Starring: Heather Matarazzo, Victoria Davis
Director: Todd Solondz
Rated: R
RunTime: 87 Minutes
Release Date: May 1996
Genres: Drama, Independent

*Also starring: Cristina Brucato, Daria Kalinina, Matthew Faber, Angela Pietropinto, Bill Buell, Brendan Sexton III, Eric Mabius, Rica Martens

Review by Steve Rhodes
4 stars out of 4

Remember being 11 years old and in junior high? Cast your mind back to when you got your tray in the cafeteria and looked out onto the mass of humanity trying to figure out with whom you could sit. Remember that feeling of potential rejection around every corner? Remember the horror of puberty? I have never seen a film that captures the inner terror of that time better than WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE.

This film is being billed as "deliriously wicked" or "hilarious black comedy." Certainly the film is funny, but to me it is first and foremost a gripping tragedy - sad and somewhat disturbing. I was so touched by the excellent and realist script and the moving acting by Heather Matarazzo as the protagonist Dawn Wiener that I was near tears through out the entire show and stayed right on the edge of my seat. It is extremely easy to empathizes with Dawn. I would rate this film in the most see category for parents, but it is so brilliant, I sincerely hope everyone sees it.

Dawn has looks, that while not ugly, are subpar. To this she dresses herself in gaudy clothes (costumes by Melissa Toth) and wears unattractively framed glasses. She is ostracized by her fellow students who call her "Wienerdog," and who torment her at their every chance. In junior high, homophobic epithets are particularly popular. Dawn is nonplused by her treatment and asks one of her tormentors, "Why do you hate me?" To which the simple reply is, "Because you're ugly." Think back now. Yes, junior high is like that for some.

Dawn has other problems than junior high. At home she has a 5 year old sister, aptly named Missy (Daria Kalinina), who has the looks of a child model and who is always in her ballet costume demonstrating her great artist abilities. Dawn is jealous of her and complains to her that "you are so lucky."

She has an older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) who is currently in high school, but is in the fast lane to a good college and from there to be an entrepreneur who will probably be worth zillions. When his Dad (Bill Buell) goes into the hospital, he is too busy to visit because he has "a big forensic society debate." His mother (Angela Pietropinto) agrees that is more important seeing his father.

Both siblings view Dawn as a misfit in their family. At the dinner table one night, Dawn says something about her sister, and her mother gets angry and pointing her finger at Dawn she demands, "Dawn, you do not leave this table until you tell your sister that you love her!" I like the realistic way this dispute gets resolved in the show.

A lot of the story deals with adolescence's obsession with sex. Dawn asks her brother, "Do you think about girls?" He glares at her from his computer and responds, "Are you kidding? I want to get into a good school." Dawn has no such aspirations. Her grades are poor and her artistic abilities are, well, limited. Most scripts would have coped out by compensated Dawn's mediocre looks with strong academic strengths, but not this one.

When Dawn is not just spending her time coping, she dreams of making it with the most popular kid in high school, Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius). In my favorite small scene from the show, she sits on a car swaying to Steve's singing "Welcome to the Dollhouse" in a band that is practicing in their garage. This is one of the few times she is really happy.

Dawn spends most of the film in search of happiness. She muses that perhaps it lives just over the horizon in high school. Mark breaks this bubble by informing her, "High school's better than junior high. They'll call you names, but not as much." Well, that's sure reassuring.

The film is filled with strong acting by even minor characters, including Victoria Davis as Lolita, Christina Brucato as Cookie, Brendan Sexton Jr. as Brandon McCarthy, Telly Pontidis as Jed, Herbie Duarte as Lance, and Scott Coogan as Troy. The acting by the leads is even better. Daria Kalinina is excellent as a supercilious brat. Angela Pietropinto is a perfect mother from hell to the daughter she wished she didn't have. Matthew Faber has pompous obnoxiousness down pat.

The reason for the overwhelming success of the picture comes from two factors. The first is the acting by Heather Matarazzo. In a single performance she is able to embody all of the fears we had in that dark era we know as childhood. So much of her acting is perfect, right down to the way she carries herself. She acts like her glasses are not quite strong enough, and, in addition, she must avoid being seen, the net result is she kind of slinks around the school. Although barraged with insults, Heather breathes an inner strength into her character and shows that underneath her character sees herself as a radical. In the press kit, the director said that he feared "that Heather would lost interest in the movie after she discovered how tedious and dreary the film production process is and tell her mother midway she'd rather enroll in basketball camp (her original summer plans)."

The second, and most important reason, the show works so marvelously is Todd Solondz. He wrote, directed, and produced the film. This first time film maker has come up with a show that critics, including yours truly, say will certainly be on their best films of the year list. The script is intelligent, funny, poignant, and wise. Although sometimes shocking, it is never manipulative. The director said of the casting that "Although there is no sex, nudity, or violence in the movie, many parents were reluctant, if not unwilling, to allow their children to participate in the film." He said that some parents found the film "unsettling" or "depressing" which he "took as a compliment as that reflected the world he was trying to portray. Unfortunately, there were many parents who found the script 'delightful' and this had him concerned, particularly when he could see the frozen smiles on their children."

The music (Jill Wisoff) is an effective blend of old Tchaikovsky classical pieces and modern rock ones. The picture was filmed on location in Caldwell and West Caldwell, New Jersey. We lived in a lovely place in New Jersey for many years, and the sets (Susan Block) of typical middle class homes of bad carpet and clutter look realistic and familiar.

WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE flies by at just 1:27 thanks to dead on editing by Alan Oxman. The film is rated R. Just as the director said, there is no sex, nudity or violence. There is some bad language including some uses of the F word. The main reason for the R rating probably is that there is one attempted rape scene. This can be a disturbing show because of its realism, but it begs to be seen and the humor dulls some of the pain. I would like to think that kids as young as 10 will go see this film, but only with their parents. Without parents, I would only let mature teenagers go. I was blown away by this tour de force of a movie, and it will certainly be high up on my best of the year list. I give the film my strongest recommendation and award it a full ****.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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