Welcome to the Dollhouse

From the ashes of Todd Solondz’ ignored debut Fear, Anxiety and Depression rose the phoenix of his second film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. If not for the fact that Solondz disgustedly gave up on movies (based on the studio hassles on his first one) and went into teaching, he wouldn’t have collected some of the material that made Dollhouse a critical favorite and rejuvenated his career. Life does sometimes work like that.

This may remain Solondz’ most user-friendly comedy, at least until he pulls a Straight Story and goes G-rated or something, but it still couldn’t have been easy to market. The trailer made it look like the kind of whimsical revenge-of-the-nerd comedy it isn’t — it included all the funny scenes of junior-high hell we can all relate to, but was careful to leave out the painful, uncomfortable bits. Solondz’ movies are really off-center psychodramas with occasional comic relief. Anyone expecting a bouncy, colorful trifle about a geeky girl who triumphs over her tormentors and gets the boy will instead find a story that seeks uneasy laughs in a little girl’s kidnapping and a class bully’s threat of rape.

Yet Dollhouse is consistently funny, starting with Heather Matarazzo’s indie-film-star-making performance as Dawn Wiener, aka Wiener Dog, a tacky dresser and wallflower with blocky glasses and a chinless overbite. Matarazzo, in photos out of this character, is actually rather pretty, and has a warmer smile than she allows herself as Dawn, whose grins in her rare moments of happiness always look pained and desperate. Still, Matarazzo fearlessly lets Solondz dorkify her and stays inside Dawn’s anguish and resentment. Dawn isn’t a lovable martyr, either — she can be prickly, and often has heated exchanges with her older brother Mark (Matthew Faber, looking like a young Bill Gates) and younger sister Missy (Daria Kalinina) — especially Missy, whom her parents adore.

Dawn, who probably never expected to give or receive romantic attention, finds herself at the center of the weirdest triangle in recent movies. She falls haplessly in love with Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius), a long-haired high-school hunk who sings and plays guitar in Mark’s band. This part of the movie is a little stale; it doesn’t speak well of Dawn’s taste that she would fall for such an airhead, but then teenagers usually don’t get to pick the objects of their undying love (come to think of it, neither do adults). Competing for Dawn’s affections, in his own bizarre way, is the loutish Brandon (Brendan Sexton III), who torments her and says he’ll rape her after school. Yet we discover that Brandon’s bully act is just that, an act, and that he wants to be in her thoughts in some way, even dread-ridden thoughts.

Solondz puts Dollhouse in neutral for a while, observing Dawn’s misfortunes with Steve and Brandon, and with her unsympathetic parents, who want to tear down her secret clubhouse in the yard to make room for the anniversary party they’re throwing themselves. The last act, when Missy goes missing and we’re invited to giggle at her mom’s overplayed agony, gets a little iffy. But then that’s the turf Solondz knows best — the stuff we don’t normally laugh at, or aren’t supposed to laugh at. Dollhouse deservedly established Solondz, seven years late, as a talent to watch. At its best it’s like the funniest yet bleakest comic book Dan Clowes never drew; it would make a perfect double bill with Ghost World, and I can imagine Dollhouse being a favorite film of Enid and Rebecca, and vice versa.

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