Welcome to the Dollhouse
directed by Todd Solondz
(Sony, 1996)

Dawn "Dogface" Wiener has everything a seventh-grader could never want: a big brother who can't see past his high school transcripts, a little sister her parents just worship and a locker that's the epicenter of all the graffiti at Benjamin Franklin Junior High.

She has a sour prune face even a mother couldn't love -- made worse by a pair of vice-grip glasses -- and a teacher who humiliates her by having her read a 100-word essay on dignity to the class.

The only thing worse than her life is her hairdo, and the only thing worse than her hairdo is her wardrobe.

Her fantasy, she says, is to find a man to take her "away from this place." Instead, she gets orders to appear at 3 p.m. by the dumpster outside the school so she can be raped by the class bully (Brendon Sexton Jr.). Ever the good soldier, she goes.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is not the kind of stuff comedy is usually made of. It's too painful. It's advertised as a black comedy, but it's so black it's often hard to see the humor.

Given the desperateness of her situation, Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) does the only thing she can possibly do: She makes things worse for herself, first by developing a crush on the singer in her brother's garage-rock band, then by accidentally contributing to her sister's kidnapping.

It's hard to tell at times which is more painful, watching Dawn get abused, or watching her pass on the abuse to her only friend, Ralphy (Dimitri Ibwolino), whom everyone calls " that faggot." Excuse the language, please -- this is junior high; there's no political correctness here, and even less sensitivity.

Welcome to the Dollhouse won the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival, and with good reason. It's a rare example of a filmmaker's vision etched directly onto celluloid.

There's no sense here that the investors had their "input," that the studio had its cut, that the ending was test-marketed. This is not work of a committee.

Producer-director-screenwriter Todd Solondz had something to say and he said it. Witness the final exchange between Dawn and her brother Mark (Matthew Faber): "Is eighth grade better than seventh?"

"Not really."

"What about ninth?"

"All of junior high sucks. High school's better. It's closer to college. They'll call you names, but not as much to your face."

Dollhouse does have its hysterical moments: Mark's band playing "Satisfaction" with a clarinet lead; Dawn trying to woo her crush with a dinner of frozen fish sticks; the quick cuts to Dawn's tutu-clad sister (Daria Kalinna), a refugee from The Nutcracker, prancing across the lawn.

But don't rent Dollhouse expecting to laugh until it hurts -- though you may laugh, and you will hurt.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.