When asked if there's anything he'd like to discuss about his hot new indie flick, Welcome to the Dollhouse, writer-director Todd Solondz doesn't hesitate. It's not the movie itself that comes to mind, but his experiences publicizing it.
"Some of the journalists I've spoken to for this movie have said that Heather (Matarazzo, the film's 13-year-old star) and I look like 'nerds' or 'geeks.' I know they're trying to be cute, but it's rude and obnoxious." Just that morning an on-air personality at KDGE-FM 94.5 had begun a brief interview with, "So, I can see you're a geek..."
"I especially don't like it when people describe Heather as ugly," he insists, peering through thick specs. "She's not ugly--she plays an ugly character." He shrugs. "It's not something I lose sleep over. It's just obnoxious."
The layers of irony aren't lost on Solondz, who finds his receding hairline, slight stature, and nasally New Joizy accent the subject of press speculation about parallels between him and Dawn Wiener, the misbegotten seventh-grader played with tender toughness by Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse. Solondz insists that his own childhood wasn't as miserable as Dawn's, but says he knew kids who went through hell. So decide for yourself whether there's a confessional flavor to the film's caustic brew of profanity and clumsy yearning. But the utter lack of sentimentality at its racing heart makes the fairly standard childhood indignities portrayed here cut like high tragedy.
Eleven-year-old Dawn has just graduated from grade school into a hormonal fun house called Benjamin Franklin Junior High, where bodies, emotions, and the definition of "community" get twisted into grotesque shapes. She falls in love simultaneously with a violent fellow classmate (Brendan Sexton Jr.) and the cocky, talentless 17-year-old singer (Eric Mabius) of her older brother's band.
The key to the bracing power of Welcome to the Dollhouse is that Todd Solondz portrays contemporary childhood divorced from the rose-colored hindsight that marred The Babysitters Club, the Demi Moore-produced Now and Then, and other recent Hollywood products that touched on female adolescence. At some point in the aging process, most grown-ups forget that children must deal every day with the same conflicts about class, gender, and appearance as adults. School, like prison, runs on a code of conduct parallel to the outside world's, sans the cushiony layer of hypocrisy that makes many adult interactions bearable. Welcome to the Dollhouse illustrates with merciless detail daily life lived in the grip of this tribal rule book. Consider that Solondz originally wanted to call his second feature Faggots and Retards, and you'll have some idea of his approach to the material.
His debut movie, 1989's Fear, Anxiety, and Depression, got a national art-house release. He is as disappointed about this first feature, which detailed the relationship traumas of East Village eccentrics, as he is about the three-picture, writing-directing deal with both 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures that preceded it. Both followed a series of enormously well-received student films made while he was at New York University. (He calls his college days "miserable and depressing," and says he escaped into "watching and making movies.")
Solondz assiduously avoids detailing his negative experiences, but says, "I was spoiled by the autonomy of being a student filmmaker." Suffice it to say he pulled out of filmmaking in the early '90s and taught English as a second language to Russian immigrants.
He says he jumped back into directing because "the money was available," and he didn't want Fear, Anxiety, and Depression to be "the last word on me as a filmmaker." Welcome to the Dollhouse was a script he'd written several years earlier. When asked why he chose to explore the sexual trials of an 11-year-old female suburbanite, Solondz says, "People react differently to boys and girls in movies just like in life. Everybody thinks that girls are more sensitive and delicate than boys, which is bullshit. I do believe, though, that girls mature faster than boys. A girl falling in love has more dramatic weight and emotional complexity. When a boy falls for his classmate or the baby sitter, people's first response is to be amused."
Amusement probably won't be your initial reaction to Dawn Wiener and the slow parade of humiliations she endures. The raw language spouted from the mouths of these babes recalls the controversy stirred last year by Larry Clark's indie sensation Kids. But unlike Clark and his scriptwriter Harmony Korine, Solondz knows that, if portrayed successfully, the inner life of an adolescent is much more harrowing than copious amounts of on-screen sex and drug use can convey. Like Martin Scorsese, he makes excellent use of trash talk through poetic repetition. It's an unsettling mix.
"After the film was picked up by Sony Pictures at Toronto, I really started to worry about its crossover appeal," Solondz says. "When it won [the Grand Jury Prize] at Sundance, and people like Steven Spielberg, James L. Brooks, and Oliver Stone told me they liked it, I felt a little better. How often do you think Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone have the same reaction to a movie?"
The critical reaction to Dollhouse has been almost universally ecstatic. The notable holdout is Terrence Rafferty at The New Yorker, who reacted with impassioned disapproval to the film's displays of meanspiritedness. He bluntly termed it "a hateful picture," which is, strictly speaking, correct: Welcome to the Dollhouse churns with the corrosive brand of hatred that only a junior-high-schooler can muster. Even the persecuted Dawn Wiener sometimes retaliates with the same casual vindictiveness she often endures, as when she taunts her equally unpopular best friend: "Faggot."
"I don't know if Terrence meant it was a movie full of hate, or a movie that deserved to be hated," Solondz says. "I got the definite impression that he hated it, though."
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That Todd Solondz can strip childhood of some of its comfortable, adult-inspired mythology and still leave an awkward young female character with the dignity of her very real desires is what rescues Welcome to the Dollhouse from drowning in the social swamp it dramatizes.
During our interview, it becomes increasingly clear that Solondz cares very much about how his movie is received by ticket buyers. As we finish our conversation, he point-blank asks me how I think Welcome to the Dollhouse will perform in Dallas.
"Just tell them it's a comedy," he instructs me. "There are some sad parts in it, but above all, people should know it's OK to laugh."
Welcome To the Dollhouse. Sony Pictures Classics. Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton Jr., Eric Mabius. Written and directed by Todd Solondz. Opens June 21.