Reviews of
Welcome to the Dollhouse

Starring: Heather Matarazzo

Welcome to the DollhouseA Film Review
by James Berardinelli

Location: United States
Date: 1996
Running Length: 1:27
MPAA Classification: R (Profanity, mature themes)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Cast: Heather Matarazzo, Victoria Davis, Christina Brucato, Christina Vidal, Siri Howard, Brendan Sexton Jr., Telly Pontidis
Director/Producer/Screenplay: Todd Solondz

Welcome to the Dollhouse, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, is Todd Solonz' counterattack against the Wonder Years nostalgia that clouds movie memories of adolescence. After all, junior high school isn't the endless series of halcyon days that television and films would have us believe. Especially for those who aren't members of the "in" crowd, the pre-teen and early teen years can be an extremely painful time. In this impressive debut, Solonz doesn't pull any punches in conveying the side of junior high that The Wonder Years never depicted: the naked cruelty that some boys and girls suffer at the hands of their classmates, their teachers, and even members of their own family.

This is the story of Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), or "Dogface Weiner", as just about everyone at school calls her. Bespeckled and not blessed by perfect features or a good complexion, Dawn is not a popular girl. A loner by nature, she has only one friend -- a sickly elementary school boy who is as much an object of derision as she is. At school, she is pelted by spitballs and epithets. When she asks a classmate "Why do you hate me?", the response is simple and succinct: "Because you're ugly." The teachers at Benjamin Franklin Junior High seem to go out of their way to humiliate Dawn, accusing her of grade-grubbing and forcing her to write essays about the meaning of dignity. At home, as the middle child, she is the most frequently neglected. Her older brother is a nerdy computer whiz and her younger sister is her parents' favorite. The only time Mom and Dad take notice of Dawn is when she does something wrong.

One might wonder how a man, Solondz, could write, produce, and direct such an insightful examination of preteen female pain. At Dawn's age, however, there's not that much difference between the indignities and humiliation endured by boys and girls who aren't functioning members of specialized cliques. Loners become magnets for despite, and gender has little to do with it. Dawn could just as easily be Don, and, while script changes would be necessary, the themes and emotion would have remained on the same level.

Despite its grim subject matter, Welcome to the Dollhouse isn't a complete downer. Dawn is resigned to her fate, and, though her dearest wish is to be popular, she's able to accept her lot. Solondz has injected a fair amount of natural humor into his script. Some of the audience's laughter will be in response to uneasy situations, but there are a few genuinely funny situations, such as when Dawn avenges herself against her fairy princess sister (who often appears on screen to the strains of "The Nutcracker") by taking a saw to a doll's neck.

Solondz's plot becomes a little too ambitious. Instead of focusing on all the simple, everyday indignities of Dawn's life, he tries for something more momentous. As Welcome to the Dollhouse moves into its final third, kidnapping, possible child molestation, and drug dealing have all been added as plot elements. Dawn is still the central character, but it's less easy to identify with her as her circumstances arc beyond the realm of the mundane. Welcome to the Dollhouse is at its best when we forge an intimate identification with the main character, who embodies the adolescent insecurities of even the most popular and well-adjusted pre-teen.

The most effective scene of Welcome to the Dollhouse is the first one, which shows Dawn entering a junior high cafeteria. Alone, she drifts through the room, looking for a place to sit. No one wants her at their table, and, when she finally finds an unoccupied seat, she's informed that the reason it's available is because someone barfed there earlier. In many ways, this sequence is excruciating to watch, but it's also right on target.

Heather Matarazzo is entirely believable in this unglamorous role -- we can feel Dawn's isolation, longing for a "normal" life, and bitterness at the way everyone rejects her. When a boy threatens to rape her, Matarazzo conveys the girl's ambivalence. Rape is a horrible, violent crime, but Dawn so desperately wants acceptance that she's willing to submit to almost anything. Her relationship with that boy, incidentally, is one of the film's most interesting.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is sort of like Angus, but without the false Hollywood sheen and forced happy ending. Solondz's perceptiveness is acute, and, at one time or another, it will make most viewers feel uncomfortable. It's not a perfect motion picture, but, as far as taking a cold look at an over-romanticized period of childhood, it's uncompromising. Welcome to the Dollhouse won't make you wistful for your lost junior high years; it will make you glad you grew up.

by Kenneth Turan

"Welcome to the Dollhouse": Barbie Never Had It This Bad

They still torture the old way in junior high. They call you awful names. They tease and torment the weak. The awkwardness is unbearable, the hopelessness unrelenting. It's enough, Todd Solondz says, to make you laugh.

This alchemist's ability to turn misery into something bitingly funny defines "Welcome to the Dollhouse." Written and directed by Solondz, "Dollhouse" won the Grand Jury Prize at the last Sundance Film Festival for its daring double vision, its mirroring of junior high agonies combined with a willingness to step aside and see everything from a darkly humorous perspective.

For 11-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), a.k.a. Wiener-dog and Dogface, suburban Benjamin Franklin Junior High is no laughing matter: It's a near-death experience that has to be endured every day. With too-big glasses on top of a dour face, Dawn has the dazed look of the permanently overmatched, an ugly duckling too intense to ever become a swan.

Dawn is glimpsed in Ben Frank's central torture chamber, the cafeteria, where one false move, like sitting next to Lolita (Victoria Davis), the reigning queen of mean, can lead to a lunch period of harassment by cheerleaders who chant "lesbo, lesbo, lesbo" at anyone who looks vulnerable, no matter what their sexual orientation.

In fact, life at Ben Frank is an escape-proof nightmare. Try as she might, Dawn never gets a break, not from irritable teachers who deny her the benefit of the doubt, not even from other victimized students, eager to take their own frustrations out on her.

Things are bad at home, too. Dawn's "king of the nerds" older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) ignores her in his humorless quest to get into a good college, and their vindictive mother (Angela Pietropinto) clearly prefers Dawn's perky younger sister Missy (Daria Kalinina), a self-centered baby ballerina who spends all day prancing around in a tutu.

The sole friend Dawn can muster is the unsatisfactory Ralphy (Dimitri Iervolino), a younger kid who is the only other member of the Special People Club that meets in a rickety shack in Dawn's backyard.

Still, Dawn is stubborn and resilient, gifted with the ability to struggle against reality. She never gives up, not even when class bully Brandon McCarthy (Brendan Sexton Jr.) selects her as his special torture victim. And when she meets older guy Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius), the hunkiest and most popular of high school seniors, she gets an intense crush on him that is as ferocious as it is out of the question.

With his ability to understand and convey these absurdist scenarios in both adult and preteen terms, writer-director Solondz catches the unlooked-for humor in poignant, hurtful situations. His cast is a major asset, especially Matarazzo. Her portrayal of Dawn's deadly serious determination and dogged conviction that she can become a sex object even if she's not exactly sure what that requires leaves us uncertain whether to laugh or cry. Which, of course, is the point.

Both rueful and a cause for laughter, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" understands the unfairness of being on the bottom of the food chain of junior high humiliation, the intense frustrations of a time in life when every single thing you do is wrong. It wasn't fun to live through, but at least this film gives us the release of laughing at it now.

May 24, 1996
by Stan Schwartz

Welcome to the Dollhouse

An overnight sensation first at the Toronto film festival, then at Sundance, Welcome to the Dollhouse, a wonderful new independent film written and directed by 36-year old Todd Solondz, has just opened commercially. If you have been disappointed (as I have) by such recent indy efforts as I Shot Andy Warhol and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, Welcome to the Dollhouse will go a long way to compensate, and then some.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is the story of 11-year old Dawn Wiener, as she suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous humiliation attendant to a hellish 7th grade in suburban New Jersey. Let's face it, it would be kind to call Dawn awkward and geeky, a fact not in the least bit lost on her schoolmates, who tease and taunt her in ways that are sometimes out and out brutal. And there is no consolation to be found on the home front. Mr. and Mrs. Wiener are emotionally absent for Dawn, much more intent on lavishing their praise and attention on her younger sister Missy (Daria Kalinina) who, clad in her ballerina Tu-Tu, pirouettes her way through the film with such nauseating cuteness that you want to kill her. It's a thought that, in one powerful sequence, occurs to Dawn as well. Then, there's Mark (Matthew Faber), the older brother. At one point described as "The king of the nerds," he divides his time neatly between his computer and his rock band (in which he plays clarinet!), and early on, viewers are treated to a rendition of the Stones' Satisfaction that is so bad, it will have you rolling in the aisles. The musical quality of the band takes a definitive turn for the better when older and longer- haired teenage heart-throb Steve (Eric Mabius) is recruited as the new lead singer. Dawn is instantly smitten, but of course, her feelings aren't even remotely reciprocated.

The crux of Welcome to the Dollhouse, however, is the dark and complex relationship which develops between Dawn and the school bully Brandon McCarthy (Brendan Sexton, Jr.). Brandon starts out as the stock bully from the wrong side of the track, given to such monstrous behavior as threatening Dawn with "Rape." I place this in quotes because it is one of the film's major notions that children appropriate adult language of violence, use it without fully understanding the true import of what they're saying, and occasionally even transform it (unintentionally and hence very poignantly) into meaning something very near the opposite. The would-be "rape" scene is arguably the most fascinating and touching scene in the film, and the best scene of its kind in any American film I can recall about children. Suffice it to say nothing remotely approaching a rape actually occurs. Quite the contrary, points of commonality are subtly and tentatively formed between this seemingly unlikely pair based on their shared feelings of intense alienation and hurt.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is ostensibly a comedy and many, many moments will make you laugh. But there are just as many moments that will make you shiver, for Mr. Solondz does not shy away from those moments of humiliation and pain which we all know are so much a part of growing up. The young actors are amazing, and the adults are not bad either, though it is in the nature of this kind of film that they tend slightly towards caricature. But what is most rare and admirable is Mr. Solondz's unrelenting honesty and assiduous avoidance of cutesiness and sentimentality. I can't wait to see his future work. If Welcome to the Dollhouse is any indication, Todd Solondz is someone to watch closely.


EW Interview with Heather Matarazzo