After watching Welcome to the Dollhouse again this week (my fourth time overall), I have come to the inevitable conclusion that this Todd Solondz classic is one of my favourite movies of all-time, an undisputed inclusion in my top 5.
I loved it the first time I saw it, by accident on TV probably a dozen years ago, and love it probably even more today. This black satire — about an awkward 11-year-old girl being an awkward 11-year-old girl — simply hypnotised me, and no matter how many times I watch the film it still makes me laugh out loud.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what makes Dollhouse such an unforgettable film, though I suspect it starts with the protagonist, Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo, in one of the best child performances ever), a shy, awkward, socially inept and extremely unpopular seventh grader. Even the victims of bullies tell her to get away from them.
You feel for Dawn, but at the same time you don’t, because instead of simply being a victim, Solondz paints her (and pretty much every character) as a emotionally honest person who takes out her frustrations on her “perfect” and beloved little sister, Missy, and her only friend, fifth-grader Ralphy. You feel bad for Dawn when she is being bullied, but soon after you see her doing the exact same thing to Missy. You feel bad for Missy for a second, but then you realize she’s just being a spoiled, manipulative little brat. The same thing can be said for the naughty school bully, Brandon, and Dawn’s older brother Mark, the “king of the nerds.” Each one of them pulls you in one direction and then jerks you in another. It’s brilliant but also unexpectedly poignant.
But back to Dawn. Sure, she is an exaggerated character, but she rings so true that her personality permeates the entire film, giving it a quirky, awkward and uncomfortable feeling all the way through. There are many cringeworthy moments, many of which involve the aforementioned Brandon and Dawn’s love interest, singing hunk Steve Rodgers. The dialogue is also impeccable — sharp, witty, painful, hilarious, and undoubtedly honest. Solondz is a master of capturing the nuances of conversation, so much so that even a simple silence can speak volumes.
I’ve seen some of Solondz’s later works, such as the controversial Happiness (which I watched again the other day) and the equally controversial Storytelling. They are all great in their own way, but Dollhouse is, in my opinion, by far his best film. It’s just more innocent, pure, and quirky without being too dark, shocking for the sake of shocking, overstepping the mark of decency, or crossing the line into obscenity.
The end result is an 87-minute masterpiece of uncomfortable hilarity that is as wonderful as it is memorable, as cutting as it is sweet. Would it be correct to categorize Dollhouse as a cult classic? The independent film only had an US$800,000 budget and, according to Wikipedia, made just US$4.6 million, but I have to presume that is just the cinema box office receipts. Napoleon Dynamite is probably its closest contemporary comparison and is a much bigger commercial success (box office of more than US$46 million from a 400,000 budget), but to me the competition is not even close. Dollhouse is just a better-made, funnier, more consistent and captivating film all-round.
5 stars out of 5!
PS: Here’s the trailer. You can actually watch the entire film on YouTube these days (as with its sequel, the inferior but still very good Palindromes)