Published on June 3rd, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Welcome to the Dollhouse 
Summary: It's as funny, raw and at times, heartbreaking as any coming-of-age flick ever made. Its lead character is a saint of frustration and writer-director Todd Solondz proves himself as one of film's most original and unashamed voices.
R | 87 min.
Director & Screenplay: Todd Solondz
Starring: Heather Matarazzo, Matthew Faber, Brendan Sexton III
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Budget: $800,000 | U.S. Box Office: $4.5 million
“Hear me. You will fall in love with me. You will make love to me. You will take me away from this place.”
That’s not a line of dialogue from E.L. James’ latest panty-dampening novel. It’s one whispered with aching desperation by an awkward 7th-grade girl as she prays for the affections of a long-haired, guitar-slinging high school-aged boy.
The film is 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. The speaker is Dawn Weiner.
Dawn (aka “Weinerdog” to her cruel junior high classmates), is a prickly girl after the hearts of anyone who’s ever felt overlooked. The character isn’t always likable and possesses very little in the way of charm but this movie is written and acted in such a way that makes her impossible not to root for. She’s played by 12-year-old actress Heather Matarazzo in what has to be counted among the great lead performances by a child actor in movie history.
Welcome to the Dollhouse follows Dawn through a short period of typical days in East Coast suburbia. She gets picked on at school, ignored at home in favor of her siblings, develops an unrequited crush on an older boy, strikes up an unlikely friendship with a boy who threatens to sexually assault her, and leads a two-member fraternity from her backyard clubhouse. Dawn is a ship lost in the sea of pre-teenage hormones, social angst and a confounding sense of deep anger that many kids can relate to but have no clue what to do with.
This is the movie that launched the career of writer-director Todd Solondz, whom I consider one of the most original and unashamed voices in cinema of the last 20 years. Solondz has never found mainstream success — Welcome to the Dollhouse‘s $4.5 million in box office collections are the highest of his career — but has consistently pushed the boundaries of onscreen storytelling, often inducing cringes in his audiences by confronting taboo subject matter and offering no apologies. Three years after this film, he would write and direct one of the best films of the 1990s, an ensemble drama called Happiness.
But this is where it all started for Solondz. The movie is loaded with vile, vitriolic language, spoken by teenage actors playing teenage characters. In short, the nastiness rings true. The story goes that Solondz was so frustrated with the business of filmmaking after his 1989 debut picture that he vowed never to do it again; of course, that didn’t last but his feelings of anger and marginalization are palpable in nearly every scene of Welcome to the Dollhouse. The movie would go on to be an indie darling, winning the top jury prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, an award that has since gone to Academy Award-nominated films Winter’s Bone, Precious and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
What separates this film from many about adolescence is that it doesn’t take the easy way out. Dawn is the story’s protagonist but she’s revealed as a seriously flawed person who is no better than her tormentors at times. One of those bullies, a roughneck boy named Brandon (Brendon Sexton III), could easily be painted as an irredeemable villain, but instead is made three-dimensional thanks to a few well-written and played scenes inserted carefully into the action.
The fact that you don’t completely hate Brandon by the time the movie has ended might be the greatest sign of Welcome to the Dollhouse’s success as a complete film. In one early scene, Brandon is heard calling Dawn a “lesbo” after picking on a boy and labelling him a “faggot.” A few scenes later, he uses a pocket knife to threaten our heroine, telling her ominously, “At three o’clock today, I’m gonna rape you.” Thankfully, the promise never comes to fruition — an aversion Dawn strangely doesn’t seem thrilled with — and we come to understand Brandon’s penchant for violent threats when we’re given a glimpse into his home near the film’s closing.
Of all the strong, natural performances from the unknown cast of Welcome to the Dollhouse, Heather Matarazzo deserves most praise. The young player turned out to be a workhorse, appearing in nearly every frame of the movie and showing a breadth of notes. At different moments, Matarazzo plays Dawn as a naive dreamer, a cruel intimidator, and a sweet caretaker. At times she gives off a wealth of confidence, such as when she takes off on a bus to New York City in search of a missing sister for whom she has nothing but contempt; but in other scenes she’s shown as an insecure girl full of fear, such as when she’s ordered to give a dissertation on dignity to her classmates after an unsuccessful attempt at “grade grubbing.”
There are a lot of laughs in Welcome to the Dollhouse but, like many coming-of-age pictures, they often come from pain. Dawn is certainly an awkward character — evidenced visually by her garish ’90s clothing, large-framed glasses and a toothy grin which Solondz forces us to note during the film’s opening titles — but not for lack of trying to be a worldly person. Like many pre-teens, she wants to fast-forward through her adolescence and skip right to the part of life where she’s a beautiful, desired woman free of the oppression of her parents and older brother. In real life, Matarazzo has grown into a beautiful 32-year-old woman who’s made a career of acting. Aside from Welcome to the Dollhouse, the role she’s most recognized for is that of Anne Hathaway’s bookish friend in The Princess Diaries films.
While it would be a lie to call this film a subtle one, that is the only adjective I can use to describe the feeling of sadness conveyed by its ending. The camera tracks in on Dawn, whose face is one of many in a bus full of white kids singing their school’s fight song, as she looks lifelessly out the window. We assume she’ll grow up to a normal life but there’s something disconcerting about her empty conformity that plays like the conclusion to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The biggest flaw of Welcome to the Dollhouse is its pacing. Like many character studies, it drags and at times, leaves you itching for action. Also, the film’s unrelenting raw language does wear on you after a while, desensitizing you to the ridiculous things being said by these young characters. Obviously the characters have no clue how damaging and offensive the words they use in their padded, middle school world are but the audience knows all too well and it can make the picture a tough watch at times, especially if you’re looking for laughs.
Welcome to the Dollhouse is as honest as any coming-of-age comedy ever produced and its script doesn’t mince words, like many teenagers. Solondz gives us a realistic view of boredom in suburbia and gets a ton out of his young, inexperienced cast. Unlike his lead character, this filmmaker has refused to conform and continues to go against the grain in every picture he makes. Don’t believe me? Check out 2004’s Palindromes.