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WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton Jr., Eric Mabius, Matthew Faber
Director:  Todd Solondz
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Talent Files
Length:  87 Minutes
Release Date:  August 3, 1999

Film ****

Junior high is such an awkward time…such an in-between time.  Between elementary and high school, between childhood and adulthood, between both embracing and being frightened of your blossoming independence.  It’s a time when hormonal, mental, and emotional states are at an all time high, often confusing the body and the mind.  It is also, as recognized in this film, a time of impolitic cruelty.  We can all remember those who were heartlessly mean to us.  If we think hard enough, we can probably remember those we were equally mean to.  Usually, we can no more explain why we acted the way we did than we can explain why it was done to us by others.  Welcome to the Dollhouse is perhaps the most unglamorous, and ultimately honest, look at this trying period of life.

Dawn Wiener (Matarazzo) is perhaps the perfect junior high everyman, or girl.  A little shy, a little awkward, average intelligence.  In short, a perfect target, right down to her last name.  As the movie opens, she’s making the lunchroom walk, which we all remember well.  Finding the place to sit with your tray, hoping it doesn’t come down to having to sit alone.

But Dawn is ultimately more than a victim.  She’s sympathetic, to be sure, but she has her moments when she lashes out at those who are worse off than she, often in the same manners she herself has been tormented.  And it would be too easy to judge her, but after all, everything around her seems to go wrong.  The teachers don’t listen.  Neither does her family.  It’s so easy to fall through the cracks at that age that sometimes even parents can be a little too careless with a child’s delicate heart.

When Dawn gets a crush on the lead singer of her brother’s band, she latches on to it with both innocence and passion.  She thinks a crush can lead to true love, and maybe love lead to some sort of salvation.  She plans for him to take her away from all of this, never considering that he’s older, and has passed through that phase already, and moved on.

The movie never compromises.  Though it sometimes teases that there might be, there is no happy solution waiting just around the corner.  There is no miracle that makes the pains just go away.  They have to be reconciled with.  And we do sense that Dawn has that in her, somehow, someway.  She’ll never flourish.  But she will survive.

One is reminded when viewing this film of all the little traumas and heartaches that seemed so earth shattering at that age, and how those in the know would always promise that one day, you’d look back on it all and laugh.  Welcome to the Dollhouse proves you can look back and laugh…though not very loud.

Video ***

This feature contains both anamorphic widescreen and full frame presentations.  Despite being a low budget picture without a lot in the way of art direction, the transfer is mostly sharp, with no evidence of grain or break up.  Occasionally there is some softness to the image, as well as problems here and there with color separation, and the print used was not the cleanest I’ve seen.  But there is nothing so wrong as to be a distraction, or a reason to avoid the disc. 

Audio ***

The Dolby stereo track is good, particularly with the music involved.  This is one of my favorite soundtracks, and when the tunes kick in, the dynamic range expands.  Otherwise, dialogue is well rendered throughout, and the overall track is clean and clear, and perfectly serviceable.

Features *1/2

There is a trailer, and some cast and crew bios.  The box also states production notes, but there aren’t any on the disc, just the little booklet.

Summary:

This movie seems right at home four years after its release, now that indie films are becoming more and more mainstream entertainment.  But I hope it will be remembered for much more than that.  Writer/director Todd Solondz has really captured perfectly a difficult time in any person’s life, and he does so honestly, uncompromisingly, and most important, without judgment.