Sunday, 4 July 2010

Welcome To The Dollhouse

Title: Welcome To The Dollhouse
Director: Todd Solondz
Released: 1995
Staring: Heather Matarazzo, Matthew Faber, Daria Kalinina, Brendon Sexton Jr., Eric Mabius

Rating: 4 / 5

Plot: Seventh-grade is tough, especially if you’re Dawn Weiner (Matarzzo), facing constant hassle from the other kids, who frequently refer to her as “Weiner-Dog”, a situation not especially helped by her Nerdy older brother Mark (Faber), a sickeningly sweet Ballet obsessed younger sister (Kalinina) or the fact that her parents want to tear down her “Special People’s Club” clubhouse, she has to contend with all of this, while also at the same time harbouring a crush on Steve (Mabius) the older guy in her brothers band.

Review: The world of Todd Solondz is not an overly cheerful place, a feeling all the more assured by this film, which despite being his second feature, still won the grand jury prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festive, back when it was still a festive celebrating raw indie talent, rather than the corporate playground it is these days, especially as it frequently becomes less about the films and more about whose in attendance. Still this film is Solondz, fierce argument against the sunny childhood nostalgia films, which traditionally tend to paint it as a happy go lucky time of your lives, before you’re chained to the baggage of adult life, as Solondz instead opts to paint a picture of grim realism, highlighted with only the darkest of humour, as he sets out to remind many of us of the hell of high school and just how cruel kids can be.

It’s so hard, having seen the films which Solondz has inspired in the wake of this movie, not to feel the urge to draw comparisions to films such as “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) and in particular Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” (2001) for which this feels more like Enid the early years, even more so when you look at the amount of similarities between the characters of Enid and Dawn, seeing how both frequently find themselves the target of their so called normal peers, for the way they look and dress, while at the same time carving out their own personal identity, as the world around them frequently strives to work against them. Still despite the fact by the end credits Solondz resists giving the shiny happy ending with everything tied up, your still sure that Dawn will go onto better things, later returning to pour scorn on those same tormentors, who will no doubt have been dragged down into menial jobs and failed dreams, though Solondz for his own twisted reasons, would ensure that things didn’t work out so well for Dawn, when he revisited her character in “Palindromes” (2004) whose opening revealed that she went to college, gained a lot of weight and committed suicide… I said Solondz doesn’t really do happy go lucky movies.

Solondz does a fantastic job of introducing what is essentially the day to day life of Dawn, opening in the school cafeteria as she struggles to find a seat, wandering through the minefield of social cliques, finally finding a seat only to then be told that the only reason it is free is because of someone threw up there earlier that day, followed soon after with an accusation of being a lesbian by a group of cheerleaders, clearly not only relishing the chance to turn her once again into the butt of the joke, but also clearly establishing who is truly at the top of the social pile. Still it is these moments, along with moments of her fellow students referring to each other as retards or faggots, which Roger Ebert (a man who I’m recently gaining increasing respect for) rightfully pointed out while proclaiming his personal love for the film, that these kids don’t see these labels as offence, but rather just another way to humiliate each other and it’s these details, which feel in many ways like Solondz, revisiting his own possibly bullied childhood, while at the same time feeling the urge to challenge his audience only further, by frequently pushing the boundaries of taste, with one particular tormentor Brandon (Sexton), openly threatening to rape Dawn, after reporting his attempt to copy exam questions from her to the teacher, though the way he states this is pretty much stated as an everyday kind of comment, while certainly providing one of numerous dark humoured moments scattered throughout, feel more natural than anything written to be intentionally funny.

Still despite a large focus being towards Dawn being targeted for being different, Solondz also looks at how she handles the typical problems of growing up, in particular her crush on Steve, who bizarrely somehow manages to turn her brothers band from a bunch of tone deaf wannabe’s into a fully functioning band after a single practice. Not knowing how to get Steve to like her, she instead follows a mixture of misguided advice from her brother, who assures in one scene that he will go out with any girl who is willing to put out, while also attempting her own seduction technique as she plies him with junk food. Still as clumsy and shocking as these scenes seem, they are a lot more grounded in reality, than the majority of high school dramas, featuring characters that spew out crafted dialogue and witty one liners, instead these are kids talking like kids actually talk, making this in so many ways almost like a study of human nature in general.

The main gripe I have with this film is with its final reel, in which it seems like Solondz has doubts about the story he has told already and for some reason decided to jam in a kidnapping storyline, which not only makes no sense, but also failed to capture my interest seeing how it’s only purpose seemed to cram in an extra shock factor, by having the kidnapping descriptions containing paedophile undertones, which are so subtle that only the most keen eared or repeat viewers will catch them, only making these scenes all the less needed.

I know a lot of people who don’t like this movie, finding it too dark or not getting its warped humour, but then I guess it depends on what sort of time you had at school, for those who found themselves to be the underdogs, usually tend to like this movie, while the more popular kids never seem to get it. Still I didn’t get “Napoleon Dynamite” which I found to be found excessively grating throughout, unlike this film which in many is the film it wishes it was.
Whether it pushes things to far out of a desire for sensationalism, or it’s a painfully true portrait of high school life can be debated, but the only true way of knowing is to watch it yourself, which I urge you all to do.

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