(Air Date: Week Of 05/29/96)
If adolescence was your ultimate nightmare, I can understand that you might not want to relive it in a darkened theatre. But if you skip the harrowing black comedy "Welcome to the Dollhouse," you'll be missing the best film of the year.
"Welcome to the Dollhouse" is the witty and unpredictable saga of Dawn Weiner, the most unpopular girl in her junior high school. Life is truly hell for the seventh-grader, who's the butt of all her classmates' jokes--that is, when she's not being ignored. In fact, the film opens poignantly with Dawn standing with her tray in the middle of a boisterous lunchroom, utterly alone, looking for a place to sit.
Life at home is no better, for the humiliations continue unabated. The middle child of a typical middle-class family, Dawn must endure her nerdy yet supercilious older brother and spoiled ballerina younger sister. Her parents, naturally, haven't a clue about Dawn's frustrations. Although her life sounds depressing and grotesque, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" isn't. I had to see the film twice to figure out why, and it's because Dawn is too spunky and strong-willed to be a victim. To be sure, all the cruelties that rain down on Dawn hurt, but they only make her stronger.
"Welcome to the Dollhouse" abounds with other ironies. Everybody at school calls Dawn ugly but, her geeky wardrobe notwithstanding, it's easy to see that she's going to grow up to be quite attractive. A bunch of girls humiliate her in that lunchroom scene by asking if she's a lesbian, but for the rest of the movie Dawn always has a guy around.
One of the great things that writer-director Todd Solondz does in "Welcome to the Dollhouse" is provoke all sorts of conflicting emotions. He reveals unexpected information about the characters, shifting our sympathies. And he thwarts our hope and expectation that Dawn will get her revenge on all who've wronged her, perhaps in the style made famous by Sissy Spacek in "Carrie." Nonetheless, one suspects that Dawn'll turn out better than just about anybody else in the movie.
"Welcome to the Dollhouse," which took the top prize at Sundance this year, is one film where you should avoid reviews. It's packed with terrific scenes and moments, and the less you know going in, the richer the viewing experience.
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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