Critics' Corner

Rita Kempley - Style section,
A "caustic suburban comedy."

Desson Howe - Weekend section, "Evokes the archetypal sufferings of adolescence painfully well."


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'Welcome to the Dollhouse'

Scene from this movie Welcome to Dawn's alienated, miserable pubescence in the claustrophobic hell of New Jersey suburbia. Dawn, who suffers under the ignominious nicknames of Wiener Dog and Dogface, doesn't get any relief at home either. Her mother clearly favors Dawn's kid sister, Missy.

When Dawn's older brother Mark, persuades a moody high school buddy of his, Steve, to sing for his garage band, she sways reverently while he performs (flatly) to an offbeat pop composition called "Welcome to the Dollhouse." She wheedles her way into Mark's bedroom whenever Steve comes to visit. But this crush is just a new form of suffering. -- Desson Howe
Rated R


Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Heather Matarazzo; Daria Kalinina; Matthew Faber; Eric Mabius; Brendan Sexton, Jr.
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes






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'Dollhouse': The Young and the Heartless

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 21, 1996

Writer-director Todd Solondz is far from clueless when it comes to the agonies of early adolescence, which he mercilessly re-creates in his caustic suburban comedy "Welcome to the Dollhouse." This perceptive portrait of a seventh-grade outcast offers a near documentary record of the preteen's struggle to survive both her dysfunctional family and her hellish New Jersey junior high school.

Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), known to her abusive peers as "Wiener Dog," is the most self-defeating heroine since the protagonist of "Muriel's Wedding." An ugly duckling with victim written all over her, Dawn is altogether without allies. The cheerleaders call her names, and bully Brandon (Brendan Sexton Jr.) picks on her. She's a tattletale and a whiner -- even the teachers loathe her, and not without good cause.

There's no respite at home. Her parents dote on her adorable sister, Melissa (Daria Kalinina), a manipulative tyke who pirouettes about all day in a frothy tutu. And her older brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), a computer nerd himself, ignores her because he's "too busy trying to get into a good college." The truth, so easy to see, is that he doesn't want to be reminded of his own years as a scapegoat.

If this were a Hollywood movie, Dawn would trade in her glasses for contacts, buy herself a decent outfit and wind up at the prom, "Pretty in Pink." But Dawn never gets a make-over, never meets an Alicia Silverstone because Solondz has too much respect for his stubborn and resilient heroine to sell her short.

While Dawn brings many of her troubles on herself, she is extremely good at turning the most threatening situation to her advantage. When Brandon threatens to "rape" her -- "Tomorrow, same time, same place. You get raped. Be there" -- she senses that it's his way of asking her out. The two share an awkward kiss, a tender moment delicately handled by Solondz, who allows the durable Dawn a tiny taste of love.

"Welcome to the Dollhouse" does not provide a happy ending, but it promises that Dawn will find what she is looking for in the years ahead because she never gives up. She is pure unadulterated pluck. You've got to love a kid who saws the heads off of Barbie dolls. Phooey on "The Wonder Years."

Welcome to the Dollhouse is rated R for language and suggestive situations involving preteens.

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'Dollhouse': Room to Laugh

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 21, 1996

In "Welcome to the Dollhouse," Todd Solondz's bleak, no-holds-barred comedy, an ungainly, bespectacled seventh grader carrying a lunch tray walks uncertainly from table to table, looking for a quiet nook away from the heckling of others. For 11-year-old Dawn Wiener, this is a fruitless task. The moment she sits down, a group of giggling girls surrounds her.

"Hi, Dawn," says one. "Sorry to bother you, but we were wondering, are you a lesbian?"

"No!" protests Dawn, who is accustomed to this kind of harassment.

"You are," insists the coldhearted girl sitting at Dawn's table. She turns to the group. "She made a pass at me."

The students leave, chanting "Lesbo! Lesbo! Lesbo!"

Welcome to Dawn's alienated, miserable pubescence in the claustrophobic hell of New Jersey suburbia. Dawn (Heather Matarazzo), who suffers under the ignominious nicknames of Wiener Dog and Dogface, doesn't get any relief at home either. Her mother clearly favors Dawn's kid sister, Missy (Daria Kalinina), an irritating Little Miss Perfect who pirouettes all over the garden in a pink tutu and leotards. ("Dawn," says her mother at the dinner table, "tell Missy that you're sorry for bothering her and that you love her.")

Dawn's older, computer-nerd brother Mark (Matthew Faber) maintains a pact of non-aggression with her, but he has few words of comfort for his suffering sister. After all, why offer false solace when life really is hell?

Dawn's heart goes into major flutter when Mark persuades moody high school senior Steve (Eric Mabius as a teenage Jim Morrison) to sing for his garage rock 'n' roll band. She sways reverently while he performs (flatly) to an offbeat pop composition called "Welcome to the Dollhouse." She wheedles her way into Mark's bedroom whenever Steve comes to visit. But this crush is just a new form of suffering: With his narcissistic diffidence, Steve slowly breaks her heart.

In the tradition of "Parents," another dark venture into the private purgatory of growing up, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" evokes the archetypal sufferings of adolescence painfully well. It scores its comic points with dire one-liners, an astringent dearth of sentimentality and only-in-America developments. When seventh grade bully Brandon (Brendan Sexton Jr.) takes an aggressive love-hate interest in Dawn, he informs her he'll be raping her after school. Dawn, who meekly accepts her lot in life, shows up dutifully for the appointment. But Brandon, who's all sneer and no action, isn't up to the ugly deed. "What time is it?" he asks evasively, as if he has an important appointment he's late for.

In the midst of this blizzard of traumas and insults, Dawn's emotional well-being flickers like a candle light. And it's primarily thanks to actress Matarazzo's winning, ugly-duckling grace that we really care about what's at stake. As a legion of fellow students and relatives tries to blow her out, we wonder with more than casual curiosity: Will Dawn make it through adolescence alive?

WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (R) -- Contains profanity and sexual situations.

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