Criterion Prediction #170: Welcome to the Dollhouse, by Alexander Miller
Title: Welcome to the Dollhouse
Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Heather Matarazzo, Victoria Davis, Christina Brucato, Christina Vidal, Siri Howard, Brendan Sexton III
Synopsis: When seventh-grader Dawn Wiener isn’t getting bullied at school, she’s at home with an uptight older brother, spoiled little sister and uncaring parents. When her brother’s band recruits a handsome guitar player/singer, the veritable hell of puberty begins to show its teeth.
Critique: Solondz is a rare casein that he’s capable of exploring taboo subjects with point-blank clarity but counterposes the potential sensationalism with a cool-headed approach, straightforward execution and unbiased characterizations.
Welcome to the Dollhouse is a brilliantly realized coming of age story because it eschews narrative conventions, nostalgia and saccharine sentiment in favor of frank and perceptive depictions that might be unpleasant but reveal a relatively faithful rendition of what it’s like to experience the vulgarity of contemporary American life and the artifice of suburban family dynamics. Todd Solondz has the expressive range of a depressive satirist, while the more deliberate directors known for their social caricatures opt for a visionary style, Solondz tends to favor depth over aesthetics and Welcome to the Dollhouse is a clear-cut case where strong writing, characterizations and direction successfully channel a film’s substance and import. The damaging pressure of adolescence (which has only gotten worse with the advent of social media, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade a successful exploration of growing pains) is elaborated with cunning clarity, and graphic poise with an unblinking emphasis on the random cruelty adolescents are capable of.
Solondz would reach an even more ambitious mosaic of human misery with his follow up feature Happiness but Welcome to the Dollhouse remains an emotionally wrenching tale that might stand as the director’s best work.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: It’s strange that the first, and at the moment only, Solondz film in The Criterion Collection is his informal follow-up to Happiness, Life During Wartime. Given the director’s reputation and credibility amongst cineastes, his further inclusion in The Criterion Collection would be welcomed and Welcome to the Dollhouse serves as a perfect starting point for a complex and revealing filmmaker such as Solondz.