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Dawn of the Underdog

It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn: Heather Matarazzo plays eternal reject Dawn Wiener.

The lowest rung of hell is middle school in Todd Solondz's disturbing new comedy, 'Welcome to the Dollhouse'

By Richard von Busack

IT WOULD BE NICE to think there was a point to hazing in junior high school, to all of that adolescent suffering--that by culling the rejects, it improves the breed or something. Director Todd Solondz knows that, unfortunately, the weak will always be prey for the strong. He proves the point brilliantly in his anxious new comedy, Welcome to the Dollhouse, which details the baroque, sometimes almost-Sadean torment of an 11-year-old middle-schooler named Dawn "The Wiener Dog" Wiener.

The daughter on TV's Absolutely Fabulous was once taunted as a "sour-faced ditch rat" by her mummy. The description fits Heather Matarazzo's Dawn Wiener like a too-tight retainer. Dawn has a bad squint and an adenoidal, hinged-open mouth; and she's drawn to unfortunate wardrobe colors coordinated with a plastic barrette that looks like a pair of billiard balls. Those finding something grimly funny about Matarazzo's performance can salve their conscience on the grounds that one's own trip through the mill in adolescence earns one the right to laugh at others. Dawn's sorrows may make the angels weep, but for those of us on earth, Welcome to the Dollhouse is as barbed with humor as it is with poignancy.

The film is set in a sort of timeless, placeless urban zoo of late-20th-century style--specifically New Jersey, though it could just as easily be Cupertino. The Wieners are a prosperous, two-parent family. There are no guns or needles in sight in the household, and certainly no sex takes place--although Dawn knows that there's something threatening called "intercourse" waiting for her just over the horizon.

SOLONDZ'S COMEDY of suburban rejection opens by following Dawn's day at school. It's a ritualized journey that includes the humiliations of the lunch hour (can she find a table at which she'll be allowed to eat?), her locker (what new graffitied insults will greet her?), the "normal" girls (who inquire, "We just wanted to ask you--are you a lesbian?") and even her teachers (who think she's a trouble-making squealer and "grade-grubber").

Insulted at every turn, Dawn returns home, where her perfect little sister, Missy the aspiring ballerina (Daria Kalinina), is practicing her rarefied art. The fawned-over little girl reinforces our heroine's abjectness with winsome remarks to her parents like "I think you should send Dawn to a reformatory."

Meanwhile, Dawn's brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), and his rock band of fellow pale young computer jockeys are thrashing away in the garage. The band, known as the Quadratics, has recruited an alpha-male high school student named Steve (Eric Mabius), who--by looks, attitude and lack of talent--is destined to make a delible mark in the rock world. Dawn, of course, pines hopelessly after Steve and would gladly
give herself to him, if she only knew exactly what it is you give someone.

Instead of landing Steve, however, she attracts an undersized bully who reports to Dawn that she's going to get raped at 3pm, right after school.

Even that kind of attention is attention. She shows up for the appointment but is not mistreated; instead, she winds up with a type of platonic boyfriend as she continues to lure the studly wannabe rock star.

If you think a joke about rape is risky, consider that Solondz even elicits some uneasy laughs about child abduction when the snotty Missy gets disappeared for a time, thanks to an act of reprisal by Dawn.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is such a dark comedy that a sudden run of tragedy wouldn't change the tone. Dawn's fate is even worse: life just sort of goes on for her.

Dawn isn't a girl of special talents waiting to escape the clutches of her dull classmates; indeed, she pleads for conformity. Her only solution to the problems she faces is not to rebel but to find a way to join the other suburban princesses of the "dollhouse." (This analogy for the suburbs comes from Dawn's love object, who writes a typically dumb rock anthem protest song of that title).

Another surprise is that Dawn passes on some of the abuse she receives. Frustrated by her hopeless love, she turns her anger on the neighbor kid, the sole other member of the Special Person's Club, which Dawn operates out of her clubhouse in the back yard.

This bit of victimization domino theory is something I've never before seen in an American movie about teenagers. I was far, far from top rank in my junior high school, but I always made sure the real bottom dogs knew who they were. Didn't you?

Anxiety-Ridden: Director Todd Solondz at work on 'Welcome to the Dollhouse'

'MAKING THIS FILM was a horrible experience," Solondz tells me. Watching is the opposite. Welcome to the Dollhouse, which easily makes my 10-best list for the year, is an example of how Fitzgerald was wrong: sometimes, there are second acts in American life. Solondz made Welcome to the Dollhouse after a long break from filmmaking. The director's first foray into the movies--making Fear, Anxiety and Depression in 1989--had affected him so adversely that he chucked it all and became an English as a Second Language teacher for several years.

"Writing and directing my first film was horrible also," he recalls, "but the difference with Welcome to the Dollhouse is that I had creative autonomy in a way I hadn't before. Welcome to the Dollhouse was ready to be made, and the other was ill-conceived, a best-forgotten venture, totally demoralizing and painful for me to talk about it. It's not even the title that I wanted. I'll just chalk it up as a learning experience that will haunt me to my dying day."

Solondz got started in film at NYU. "I never would have made a movie had I not gone to NYU graduate school," he says. "I didn't know filmmakers or film people. I loved photography, but I didn't want to touch a camera; I loved writing but had written so many bad plays.

"At NYU, they didn't care, really didn't give a fuck about you, so I had to prove myself. It made me resourceful in ways I wouldn't have been if I'd been coddled. Ironically, it was the first time I was happy in school in 10 years, and I dropped out."

Solondz wrote the script to Welcome to the Dollhouse after watching an episode of television's The Wonder Years. "I had been told it was a popular show. I tuned in, and even though it's set in a time when I grew up, it bears little resemblance to the era I knew. So I wrote this script seven years ago and put it in a drawer because I was certain it would never be made.

"The story of a little girl getting picked on isn't likely to inspire people to throw millions at you. There's no sex in the movie, nor nudity or violence--it's a perversity in my nature. My goal was just to get to the level of the Film Forum [a noted art house in New York City], some respectful notices, a nice paragraph or two in the Village Voice."

He trails off. Instead what's happened is success at Sundance film festival, where he got studio distribution and won the Dramatic Competition. It may not have been in school, but somewhere Solondz learned Kafka's rule: "In the struggle of you against the world, back the world." As he confesses, "These investors that believed in me--I had to admit that I thought they were foolish. If I were a businessman, I wouldn't have backed this movie. I was, however, happy to discover that they were right, and I was wrong. I somehow struck a chord with this movie, touched some sort of universality of experience, and I am tremendously grateful for all that happened."

EVEN THOUGH Solondz was inspired by such nostalgic tripe as The Wonder Years--inspired to undermine it, that is--he looks at adolescence both dispassionately and compassionately.

Although Welcome to the Dollhouse is as affecting a movie about adolescence as we've had in some time, Solondz also shows John Waters' own facility at parodying suburban excess (an anniversary party looks like a Diane Arbus photo shoot).

Still, the film's kinship is not with those few worthwhile teen comedies like Waters' Hairspray and the stylized Heathers but instead with the serious movies about adolescence: Zero for Conduct, The 400 Blows, Rebel Without a Cause, River's Edge and Dazed and Confused.

Dawn's unheard prayers for popularity suggest that she will follow the way of all rejects: staying bitter no matter what happens to her later. The thorough rejection she undergoes is the kind that stays with you for life, and that's what Solondz implies with an uncompromising and stinging final scene, in which Dawn is still desperately trying to conform.

Forever fretting over her misery, Dawn is like the social outcast of Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Underground, the "mouse" swimming against the flood of the mainstream:

Of course, the only thing left for it to do is to shrug its puny shoulders and, affecting a scornful smile, scurry off ignominiously to its mouse hole. And there, in its repulsive, evil-smelling nest, the down-trodden, ridiculed mouse plunges immediately into a cold, poisonous and--most important--never-ending hatred. For forty years, it will remember the humiliation in all of its ignominious details, each time adding a new point, more abject still, endlessly taunting and tormenting itself, then, on its deathbed, the mouse will remember it all again, plus all the accumulated interest and. ...

Welcome to the Dollhouse (R; 87 min.), directed and written by Todd Solondz, photographed by Randy Drummond and starring Heather Matarazzo, Eric Mabius and Daria Kalinina.

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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro

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