The Film

In writing and talking a lot about coming of age movies for the past 20 years or more, I’ve often observed that – very broadly speaking – European cinema tends to confront the harsher realities of growing up, while American cinema likes to put a little gloss on; a slight rose tint to the glasses with which it views childhood and the teen years. Todd Solondz isn’t particularly interested in that.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is often mistaken as being Solondz’ debut, but it follows the rarely screened Fear, Anxiety and Depression, which has never had a disc release to date. By all accounts though, this is where the director first truly stamped his distinctive style on a film.

The film centres on Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), an 11 year old junior high schooler. Dawn is something of a punching bag whichever way she turns. At school she’s ‘Weiner Dog’, the kid that even the other bullied kids pick on. At home she’s the middle child, either ignored or blamed for just about everything by her parents and her siblings (nerdy older brother Mark and cute little sister Missy). It would be easy, and expected, to make Dawn all sweetness and light; the innocent brutalised, verbally and emotionally, by all around her. Solondz and Matarazzo, however, don’t take that route. Dawn is clearly influenced by the cruelty that is heaped on her, and she can be cruel too. When the kids at school call her a ‘Lesbo’, she directs the word as an insult when her little sister is annoying her, and she’s dismissive of the kid who is otherwise her one friend, Ralphie, at times calling him an F slur.

welcome-to-the-dollhouseDawn’s acting out always comes back around to her, whether it’s through being made to remain at the dinner table until she tells Missy she loves her (leading to one of several very funny cuts) or, in the most extreme example, disastrous consequences when she spitefully refuses to pass a message from their mother to Missy.

Dawn is a hugely challenging role for an 11 year old in her first feature, but Matarazzo incarnates all of the complex facets of the character. Through her, we always understand that Dawn’s acting out is a cry for attention, born largely of the fact that it’s all she experiences (even a teacher picks on her, making her first write, then read aloud, an essay on dignity after she asks to retake a test she gets a bad mark on). There is lightness among the dark, Dawn’s crush on Steve (Eric Mabius), a senior that her older brother has bribed to be in his terrible band, is well realised, with Matarazzo convincing in her hero worship of him, whether she’s serving snacks or singing along to the song that gives the film its title. It’s also the only relationship in the film that features any real kindness; Steve at least speaks to her like a human.

Solondz is a confrontational writer. The petty cruelties of children take on a very hard edge here, from the girl who corners Dawn in the bathroom and tells her “you came in here to take a shit”, backing her into the stall to her entire relationship with Brandon (Brendan Sexton III, whose career has stalled somewhat, but was an interesting and complex presence in a lot of late ’90s indie coming of age films, and is fantastic here). Brandon is one of Solondz’ trademark thorny characters. He’s not just a bully, he repeatedly threatens to rape Dawn, but – while not excusing him – the writing doesn’t make him one-dimensional. His home life is clearly abusive (perhaps differently than Dawn’s), and we get the sense that again this is a kid pushing the models of behaviour he’s seen and his frustrations out in a confrontational way. This isn’t a film for people who want to find easy black and white moral judgements.

While this isn’t the darkest of Solondz’ peeks behind the curtains of suburbia (that would be his next film, the caustic Happiness), he very much sets the aesthetic here against the tone. Dawn’s awkwardness extends to her clothing, all brightly coloured T-Shirts with odd pictures printed on them, and the environments are largely similar; bright colours, though sometimes slightly faded, perhaps reflecting the difference between presentation and reality. That gap is something our attention is called to throughout the film, from the credit sequence which zooms in on a happy families style photo of Dawn, her parents and siblings, to what for me is perhaps the film’s darkest moment; the realisation when she calls home, that nobody had noticed Dawn had run away for a night.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is bleak, almost to the point of feeling overegged in its depiction of cruelty, but I tend to think it’s more honest than many coming of age films. Kids are vicious to each other, and the bullying depicted here rings excruciatingly true, as do Dawn’s fantasies, which involve nothing more ambitious than acknowledgement and approval. Equally, Dawn’s status within her family is probably less exaggerated than we might hope, certainly the smaller moments feel real, such as the rest of the family laughing at a humiliating incident caught on the video of her parents anniversary party. The only point at which I think Solondz might push the boat out too far is in the rushed third act development after Dawn neglects to give the note to Missy (though it leads directly to some of the film’s more powerful moments).

If you haven’t discovered Solondz, this is the ideal entry point to his challenging but often rewarding filmography, and the precarious tone; a tightrope walk between discomfort and dark humour, should clue you in to whether you’ll like his other work. If you’ve tried him before and found he’s not your speed, this won’t change your mind, but for everyone else this is one of the best US made coming of age films of the ’90s, if one of the most difficult to watch.


The Disc

One of the first releases from the newly formed Radiance Films, this is a fine calling card for their releases going forward. A reversible cover has a choice of artwork, neither side with BBFC logos, which are on a spine insert. If you want to see how good the transfer is, look at the clips from Happiness in one of the extras. Those clips exhibit softness, grain and even some mild combing. The feature, on the other hand, is impressively rendered; the colours look more vivid than on any previous release, and the image is clean and sharp without the appearance of DNR. The sound is basic stereo, but that’s all the film really demands, and it’s well balanced.

The Extras

The first pressing of this release comes with a 48 page booklet, which includes new writing on the film, as well as Solondz’ original director’s notes, an interview from 2019 and an overview of contemporary reviews. My copy also came with what looks like a small bookmark, decorated with Dawn’s doodlings.

On the disc, wives and hosts of the This Ends at Prom podcast BJ and Harmony Colangelo provide an appreciative and analytical commentary (which I only sampled for this review because I found myself having some similar ideas, and I didn’t want the review portion of this piece to be overly influenced).

Aside from the commentary, there are recent interviews with Heather Matarazzo and Todd Solondz. Both are informative and the overlap is interesting for the different perspectives, though I do wish Solondz had discussed why Matarazzo didn’t reprise the role in Weiner Dog.

Finally, there is a video essay by Hannah Strong, analysing Dollhouse within Solondz’ filmography and documenting the wider presence of the Weiner family in his later work.

Overall, this is a strong slate of extras providing a variety of viewpoints and analyses of the film, without being so much content that it will take weeks to work through the disc.