Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

Welcome to the Dollhouse is a very difficult movie to criticize. It seems commendable in just about every way. It's a serious, unflinching account of what it's like to be unpopular and miserable during junior high, and it features a terrific and remarkably brave performance by Heather Matarazzo in the lead role. Solondz is careful not to sentimentalize his lonely, pathetic, 11-year-old protagonist; she isn't some kind of misunderstood incipient genius, and she oftens treats others as cruelly as she herself is routinely treated by just about everybody. Solondz also demonstrates considerable skill as a director; he knows how to use the frame, and when not to move the camera. The film is intelligent, complex, assured, and often very moving...yet I ended up being utterly repelled by it. To be blunt, I found it intolerably cruel -- as cruel as, if not more so than, its characters. The film's narrative arc is utterly flat; when it begins, Dawn is humiliated and miserable, and when it ends, she's still humiliated and miserable, and she's humiliated and miserable almost constantly in-between. It's painful to watch, and I waited for some kind of insight that might justify putting me through this emotional wringer, but waited in vain. Solondz has two basic ideas: 1) Life sucks if you're not one of the chosen; 2) Cruelty is infectious. Both of these notions are made plain within twenty minutes, but Dollhouse continues for another seventy, like a bad Oliver Stone film, saying the same thing over and over again. Furthermore, it juxtaposes this fatalistic message with garishly comic scenes apparently designed to appeal to those looking for a junior high version of Heathers. Just about everybody but Dawn is a caricature, designed to be mocked; I couldn't even begin to join in the fun, though, because I'd already committed myself wholeheartedly to this potentially heartbreaking story. Every cheap punchline felt like a betrayal. Ultimately, laughing at misery just doesn't appeal to me...at least not when it's so acutely depicted. Welcome to the Dollhouse is a bleak, grim, pessimistic movie that still wants to work in broad fat-woman-almost-blinded-by-a-spitball shtick, and there's something seriously wrong with that.