Welcome to the Dollhouse was first described to me as "Heathers in junior high school." I do get the point -- both films are sharp and bleakly funny, and both portray public schools as little perverse domains with internal social structures that border on the bizarre -- but the differences are even more striking. While Heathers was a self-consciously hip satire, Welcome to the Dollhouse takes fairly cold comfort in its own relatively somber jokes. The humor is just one way of getting at the miserable truth of the situation.
The 11-year-old Heather Matarazzo plays the nearly friendless Dawn Wiener, who is better known to her seventh-grade classmates by all manner of epithets. (She asks her tormentors, "Why do you hate me?" And sheís told: "Because youíre ugly.") Director Todd Solondz demonstrates that he has the mood just right starting in the opening scene, an almost eerie recreation of a junior high school cafeteria that has the friendless Dawn wandering through the lunchroom, food tray in hand. She starts this way and that, moving toward empty chairs that fill before she can reach them, and finally gravitates into the last empty seat in the whole cafeteria.
Home life in suburban New Jersey isnít much better than school. The family portrait we zoom in on during the title sequence is recognizably creepy in that "family portrait" kind of way, and we learn to loathe Dawnís cruel and clueless parents. Her sister is a perfect little ballerina, and her brother runs an ersatz rock band (they've recruited one of the most popular boys at the high school to sing lead in a desperate bid for popularity). In rebellion against her everyday life, Dawn has formed the "special people club" in a backyard treehouse -- a treehouse that's jeopardized when her parents decide it should be knocked down to make room for a large-scale re-affirmation of their wedding vows (the joke has to do with whether this odd little family is something that should be celebrated).
Welcome to the Dollhouse never rests. Unsatisfied with merely sketching a picture, the movie is intent on exploring Dawn's own state of mind, and her Sisyphean realization that surviving seventh grade only means that you have to get through eighth grade next year. To some extent, we deduce that her classmates' casual cruelty is learned behavior -- after enduring taunts and abuse all day at school, Dawn rather absurdly calls her younger sister a "lesbo." She gets a crush on the older boy from her brother's band, which culminates in a desperately awkward scene where she watches him eat, all dripping with prepubescent hormones. And when Brandon (Brendan Sexton Jr.), her apparent antagonist, mutters, "Iím gonna rape you," that sounds to Dawnís gawky, ever-yearning body and soul like it might be a good idea.
It's fortunate that the movie isnít all traumatic. Each scene has its own characteristic bite, but there are laughs, even if they come in fits and starts, like a hacking cough. A subplot having to do with the disappearance of Dawn's younger sister ("Have you seen Missy Wiener?") is funny and revealing, and I can't think of a movie that maintains a more skillfully deadpan evocation of the absurdity of everyday American life. It's countered by a visit to Brandon's rather Spartan household, which stands in bleak contrast to Dawn's middle-class-comfy existence.
Director Todd Solondz won the grand prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival for Dollhouse, and it's not hard to understand why. Even when Solondz' technique doesnít have quite the impact itís meant to (this is only his second feature), the film itself qualifies as that minor miracle -- a risky, unclassifiable piece of cinema that rings absolutely true. The bitter triumph of Welcome to the Dollhouse is that it paints an unapologetic picture of seventh grade as a torture test. For Solondz and his protagonist, childhood isnít the best years of your life, but rather something to be despised and endured on your way to becoming a human being.