Director: Todd Solondz
Screenplay: Todd Solondz
Starring: Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton III, Matthew Faber, Eric Mabius, Daria Kalinina, Angela Pietropinto, Bill Buell, Christina Brucato, Victoria Davis
Country: USA
Running Time: 87 min
Year: 1995
BBFC Certificate: 15

Though Todd Solondz’s first feature film was 1989’s Fear, Anxiety & Depression, it wasn’t until his 1995 follow-up, Welcome to the Dollhouse, that the writer-director gained much attention, after the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. With this and particularly his next film, Happiness, Solondz acquired a reputation as an enfant terrible of American independent cinema, due to fearlessly tackling some tough subject matter that exposed the dark underbelly of modern suburbia.

Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness certainly caught my attention as a teenager, back when they were released (though the former I saw on VHS a little later). Though the latter was a particularly tough watch, I was impressed and Solondz became a director to keep an eye on in the future.

Solondz never found the same level of acclaim that he enjoyed with his second and third features though. His star faded and, I must admit, I followed the crowd and stopped paying attention myself, despite him still having some ardent followers.

However, when I heard that Radiance would be releasing Welcome to the Dollhouse on Blu-ray in the UK, I was thrilled. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film and it’s well overdue an upgraded release, leading to its memory becoming a little faded. Needless to say, I snapped up a copy and my thoughts follow.

Welcome to the Dollhouse sees Heather Matarazzo play Dawn Wiener, an eleven-year-old girl in seventh grade. She’s a loner who is forced to put up with constant abuse from all sides – the popular kids, the bullies, the teachers and even her family (she’s the middle child of three).

When her geeky older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) enlists Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius) as the new singer and guitarist for his garage band, Dawn falls in love. Not only is he a handsome guy who reportedly will “put out” for anyone, even younger middle schoolers like Dawn, but he is one of the only people who actually listens to her and isn’t mean to her.

Meanwhile, Dawn becomes the primary target of school bully Brandon (Brendan Sexton III), who threatens to rape her. However, when the time comes for this threat to be played out, the young man shows a more vulnerable side and it appears that he actually has feelings for Dawn. The pre-teen is rightfully confused and conflicted over her own feelings for both this troubled bully and her ‘dream-guy’ Steve.

It sounds like a textbook high school movie on paper but Solondz presents a film that’s much more raw, brutal and pitch-black in tone than the vast majority of coming-of-age comedy dramas that come out of Hollywood. There’s no ‘ugly duckling’ aspect to the story, where Dawn takes off her glasses and becomes the school hottie, which you might expect given my brief synopsis. As Harmony Colangelo puts it in her commentary, “it’s a film about survival”.

By focusing on a girl in junior high, rather than straight high school, it’s looking specifically at life on the verge of the teenage years, when children don’t quite know the ways of the world and things like sex and relationships are on the horizon but not yet clear.

It reportedly split audiences, with some finding it very funny and others finding it cruel and punishing. I can see both sides, personally. I don’t find it laugh-out-loud hilarious but I certainly enjoy its cringe-inducingly excruciating humour whilst finding what happens to Dawn painfully believable and relatable.

That’s the film’s greatest strength, how accurate a picture it paints of that particularly painful, confusing and difficult time of life. It seems heightened at times, with a couple of plot twists that certainly don’t happen to all kids but, on the whole, it’s uncomfortably familiar. The film also cleverly shows that most of the characters are outsiders in some fashion, not just Dawn. This helps the story relate to everyone, not just girls who had a similar experience in their preteen years.

Made in the mid-90s, it presents a pre-internet view of adolescence (though there’s a brief reference to “getting hooked up to email”). As such, younger generations might not recognise everything here (I’m not sure the use of “lesbo” and “faggot” as popular insults still stands either). However, from what I’ve experienced working in schools and such, bullying and cruel behaviour are still rampant, despite the rose-tinted view we often get of more sensitive treatment of young people and acceptance of differences.

The cast is strong too. Originally, to fill the lead roles, Solondz tried approaching local teens who looked like they’d fit the part but found that the tough boys just threw his flyers back in his face and the loner girls were too shy to come to the auditions. So he eventually took the standard route, going through agencies. Matarazzo does a fantastic job for such a young actress. She doesn’t portray Dawn as a wholly loveable character, she can be quite vindictive herself, though her reactions and actions are generally relatable.

The supporting cast nail Solondz’s unique tone too. Matthew Faber must have been an inspiration for Jon Heder and Jared and Jerusha Hess when they made Napoleon Dynamite, as there are some notable similarities between Mark and that film’s lead character.

The costumes and production design are also spot-on. Bold colours are splashed throughout to create a certain tackiness, without overloading the film, keeping it otherwise natural-looking. Dawn’s clothes are particularly well-chosen, with bizarre prints used on her various outfits that help make it clear that she doesn’t fit in with the ‘cool kids’.

It all ends on a fairly ambiguous note, though Solondz and Matarazzo believe the final shot shows hope, that Dawn continues to plough through life and tries to fit in and enjoy herself, despite being forced into situations she didn’t choose to put herself in.

With Welcome to the Dollhouse then, Solondz has delivered a gleefully brutal, unvarnished view of growing up that’s believable enough to be painful whilst heightened enough to be bitterly funny at the same time. I’m surprised it appears to have disappeared for a long while as, personally, I feel it’s one of the all-time greatest ‘coming of age’ movies.

Film:

Welcome to the Dollhouse is out on 6th March on region B Blu-Ray, released by Radiance Films. The picture looks fantastic – clean and sharp with a wonderfully natural grain structure. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review to give you an idea of how it looks. The audio is clean and crisp too.

Limited Edition Special Features:

– High Definition digital transfer of the film with uncompressed original stereo audio, approved by director Todd Solondz
– Uncompressed stereo PCM audio
– Interviews with Solondz and star Heather Matarazzo (2022)
– Todd Solondz’s Suburban Nightmare: A visual essay by critic and author Hannah Strong on the film and its place within Solondz’s work
– Audio commentary by BJ and Harmony Colangelo of the This Ends at Prom podcast
Trailer
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Reversible sleeve featuring designs based on original posters
– Limited edition booklet featuring new writing on the film by A. S. Hamrah and Molly Lambert, archival writing by Solondz and Julian Murphet and extracts from contemporary writing on the film
– Limited edition of 2000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

The commentary with BJ and Harmony Colangelo is great, with the pair providing an entertaining analysis of the film, picking apart what makes it special whilst having fun watching what appears to be an old favourite of theirs.

Heather Matarazzo talks about how she fell into acting and tells of her experiences making Dollhouse at 11 years old. It’s an enjoyable interview.

Hannah Strong’s piece breaks down the film to see what makes it tick, whilst describing how elements of it can be found spread among the rest of Solodnz’s work. A lot of time is spent merely relating the narratives of the films, but I did appreciate learning about how they were interwoven.

In his own interview, Solondz describes what inspired the film and how it all came together. He also answers various questions, including some about the perceived tone of the film, how it holds up today and what he intended to say in the final scene. It’s an insightful piece.

I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.

Overall then, it’s a solid set of extras for a film that’s long overdue a Blu-ray release. It makes for an easy recommendation.

Disc/package:

Welcome to the Dollhouse - Radiance
Film
Disc/package
4.5Overall:
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.