WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

Dollhouse poster

Directed by: Todd Solondz

Written by: Todd Solondz

Starring: Heather Matarazzo, Matthew Faber, Daria Kalinina, Angela Pietropinto, Bill Buell, Brendan Sexton III, Eric Mabius

WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE is one of those films that I’ve heard mentioned in passing, but had never seen. I knew it was from the cynical mind of Todd Solondz. I knew that it had gained a lot of critical acclaim, found a cult following, and I’ve even seen artwork dedicated to the film. A nice way of summing up the tone of WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE is by saying it’s either the darkest adaptation of DIARY OF A WIMPY KID or a much younger and more depressing PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. The production values are as independent as things get and the story is beyond uncomfortable in content. With unfocused storytelling aside and shaky acting taken into consideration, the film didn’t blow me out of the water. However, it was a decent watch for anybody looking for a movie going into the darker corners of suburbia.

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Dawn Wiener (it’s as unfortunate a last name as it sounds) is a seventh-grader who’s become the most picked on girl in the entire school. Her friends are few and far between. Even at home, Dawn is the middle child and doesn’t get the emotional support she needs. It’s in bully Brandon McCarthy, that Dawn forms an innocent friendship. Socially awkward Brandon clearly has a crush on Dawn, but the bespectacled preteen aiming to get into the pants of older wannabe rock star Steve Rodgers. So innocent and not-so-innocent hijinks ensue as Dawn tries to survive the seventh grade and her family. Think of this film as a slice-of-life comedy, but in this case, it’s a bitter-tasting slice of a terrible point in someone’s miserable life.

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WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE is budgeted at under 1 million. This is a truly independent film by a second-time director funded on this very low-budget with a relatively unknown cast. The film suffers from a few expected problems that come with the territory. At times, the film does feel cheap in its grainy visuals. The cast is made of very young actors and actresses. Some of them are better than others. I only recognized two young faces and I am glad that the best performers in the film have since moved on to make other solid movies. Brendan Sexton III isn’t a well-known name, but he went on to work in the amazing BOYS DON’T CRY and the chilling SESSION 9. As Dawn’s bully sort-of love interest, Sexton III is convincing and bought him as the character completely. The best performance belongs to young Heather Matarazzo, who has since been seen in the criminally underrated SAVED! and gory sequel HOSTEL PART II. As the awkward Dawn Wiener, Matarazzo shines. She encapsulates those outcasts that you either knew or were in Junior High.

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Director/writer Solondz seems to have a knack for making the most horrible scenarios into bleakly funny ones. It’s not that I was not cracking up during this film, but I did make several bemused chuckles at the dark punch lines some set-ups. It does take a while for DOLLHOUSE to gain momentum and get moving. As a result, the script almost feels cut short due to the film’s less-than-90-minute running time. Besides some unfocused pacing, Solondz seems to drift into shock value. Kids can be cruel and the portraits of the two main characters are well-balanced. However, there were other scenes that went so far over-the-top that I wanted to jump through the screen and murder everybody making Dawn’s life a living hell. Sometimes, the script seems to only aim at getting a gasp or dipping into some overly perverse content.

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Todd Solondz is most definitely not in everybody’s taste. I found his second directorial project to be a mixed bag in areas and extremely well done in others (mainly in the unforgiving view of bully Brandon and outcast Dawn). The movie can go to extremes in the dark content and rely on shock value. It also has an unfocused narrative that takes a while to finally get going. Most of this can be forgiven, due to the blatant truth that Solondz doesn’t look away from (even if it can get too exaggerated). Sexton III and Matarazzo both give the best performances in the film. WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE will work wonders for some people and absolutely sicken others. I found the film to be good, but it’s littered with problems that detracted from my enjoyment. If you’re down for watching a depressing comedy, than this is the most honest portrayal of a poor girl stuck in seventh grade you’ll probably ever see.

Grade: B-

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