Once again I have to agree with the mass of critics proclaiming a film as spectacular. First was Fargo, the best movie of the year. Now there's Welcome to the Dollhouse, a close second.
The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Welcome to the Dollhouse has earned every award it has and every award it will get. Writer/director/producer Todd Solondz's intensely personal tragicomedy about an 11 year-old girl (Heather Matarazzo) facing vicious ridicule in junior high is an often somber (and more often hilarious) look at pre-teen "society."
Her name is Dawn Wiener, a.k.a. "Wienerdog," and she has three strikes against her from the start. Not particularly attractive, not overly bright, no personality to speak of -- the perfect tragic hero. But as an audience, we are instantly attracted to Dawn because she reminds us of all the awkwardness that we had during that time in our lives (although mine was more in 9th-10th grade). If you were Homecoming Queen, you might as well stop reading here.
Dawn's life is like Solondz describes about himself, "just counting off days and checking them off... interested in survival." Her family loves the darling youngest daughter Missy (Daria Kalinina). She is bullied by everyone at school, especially Brandon (Brendan Sexton Jr.), with whom she develops an intricate love-hate relationship. She has in her backyard a dingy clubhouse for the "Special People Club," which has two members, and which her parents want to tear down in order to have a party.
Basically, life sucks. But things start to look up when brother Mark (Matthew Faber) and his horrid band get the coolest guy in high school, Steve (Eric Mabius), to join in return for tutoring. Dawn finds herself instantly falling for Steve, and he, surprisingly, doesn't push her away. I could expound on the movie's rich plot like a "normal" film critic, but I won't. Instead, I'll let you savor the rich and juicy story that develops over the course of the sparse 87-minute running time. I will say that it never lets up.
Story is only one facet of what makes this film great. The acting is universally top-notch, especially considering these are all newcomers, and Matarazzo deserves special recognition -- even the villains overcome stereotyping. Randy Drummand's photography is innovative and always interesting. The use of music, particularly Dawn's angry theme, is excellent, and Solondz's little touches (like Dawn picking on Missy exactly as the kids at school pick on her, continuing the cycle) make every scene fresh and enthralling.
Although there is a minor structural problem near the end, that really doesn't detract from the overall success of the film. And by the way, cartoonist Lynda Barry should take a look at how her very similar (but not nearly as good) comic strip would look as a movie.
The social statement of Welcome to the Dollhouse almost guarantees that it will never be seen by the pretty boys and girls that really need to. That's too bad. My highest recommendation.
In that outfit? Matarazzo's kinda cute, if you ask me.