Welcome to the Dollhouse Review

For some people your schooldays are the happiest days of your life. For others, like eleven-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), they’re a day-by-day exercise in survival. Nicknamed “Wienerdog”, she couldn’t be more uncool or unfashionable if she tried. Her only friend is a neighbour everyone at school calls “faggot”. She has a crush on high-school hunk Steve (Eric Mabius), who sings in the dreadful rock band run by Dawn’s brother Mark (Matthew Faber). Things are no better at home. Her parents spoil her younger sister Missy (Daria Kalinina) while neglecting Dawn…

In a different kind of film, you’d expect Dawn’s rage to build and build during the running time and eventually lead to a Carrie-like explosion. But Todd Solondz’s film is pitched more towards black comedy. There’s no doubt that this film is very perceptively written, well directed and acted, but how much of this you find funny will depend on you. For anyone who’s been in a situation similar to Dawn’s may find this film too painful to watch as it shows, bit by bit, humiliation by insult, the slow destruction of a spirit. At one point school bad boy Brendan (Brendan Sexton Jr) tells Dawn to turn up at three o’clock to be raped…and so low is her self-esteem that she shows up. You’ll have to watch the film to see what happens next. You may well have tears in your eyes by the time the final credits run.

Todd Solondz had made some short films and one earlier feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989), which he doesn’t rate highly at all. He was working as a teacher of English to Russian immigrants (an experience which he drew upon for part of his 1998 film Happiness) before the opportunity came to make a low-budget independent feature. Welcome to the Dollhouse won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and a deserved Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance for Heather Matarazzo, who really was eleven at the time of filming.

There’s clearly a lot of autobiographical material in Dollhouse as is often the way with many “first” films. There was some comment at the time about a male writer-director filtering this experience through a female protagonist. It’s true that boys’ bullying tends to be more physical while girls’ is more psychological and exclusionary, though it’s certainly untrue that the latter kind of bullying does not happen to boys as well. Even so, this seems legitimate to me, a method for Solondz to gain a little distance on the material. It’s good that Dawn isn’t presented as anything exceptional: she’s not super-intelligent or highly creatively gifted, just an ordinary girl trying to get through school as best she can. (Another film that tackles this subject is the surprisingly dark middle section of Harriet the Spy, but as that is aimed at a different audience, namely a family one, this was resolved by the end. Solondz doesn’t let us off the hook that easily.)

Solondz is often taken as an example of a trend in American independent films, where characters and locales are set up for the presumably upscale audience who would watch films like this to score points off and to look down upon. There’s some truth in this – note the awful rock band, and the kitsch of Mr and Mrs Wiener’s twentieth anniversary party. Solondz does occasionally come over like the high school geek given access to a film camera and commercial distribution, and the boot put on the other foot. There’s an occasional sourness of outlook that ran rampant in Solondz’s 2001 film Storytelling. On the other hand, he shows considerable empathy with the put-upon Dawn – not to mention the empathic but not-condoning portrayal of a paedophile in Happiness, his best film to date. Some of the characters in Dollhouse returned in Solondz's latest film Palindromes.

Welcome to the Dollhouse, encoded for Region 2 only, gets a disappointing DVD release from Artificial Eye. The film is transferred anamorphically in a ratio of 1.78:1 (with thin black bars on all four sides), which is slightly narrower from the intended ratio of 1.85:1. However, this is a NTSC-to-PAL systems conversion (which may be unique in Artificial Eye’s catalogue). The image is soft and full of artefacts and colours smear. There’s frequent ghosting, especially on movement. Judging by the running time on the BBFC site, Artificial Eye’s previous VHS release was also a conversion. Perhaps, this being a low-budget indie, no PAL master was available. It’s still very disappointing and looks worse on a PC monitor than on a 28” widescreen TV set.

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround (ProLogic), a straight port of the analogue Dolby Stereo track that the film had in the cinema. It’s a very basic mix, pretty much entirely front and centre with the surrounds used for music and some ambience. Given the film’s low-budget, some of the sound recording is a little unpolished and a couple of lines are hard to make out – though the great majority of them are quite clear. It seems to be Artificial Eye’s policy not to provide subtitles for their English-language discs, something which I wish they’d reconsider. There are fourteen chapter stops.

Solondz is a director who chooses not to provide extras for the DVD releases of his films, so there is no commentary or interview on this disc. The only extras that do appear are the ready-made ones such as the trailer, which runs 1:56 and is in 4:3. This seems to have been transferred from a film print, as it lacks the conversion artefacts but is much more contrasty. The other special features come from the press kit, comprising a director’s note (two pages of text), Solondz’s production notes (four pages), his biography and filmography (four pages) and one page of Heather Matarazzo’s filmography.

Solondz started – or rather restarted – his career and made a lot of impact with Dollhouse. If his more recent films seem the work of someone who has (temporarily, hopefully) run out of things to say, then Dollhouse is a reminder of the talent of a frequently provocative but just as often insightful filmmaker. It’s a pity that it isn’t served by a better DVD.

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