"A year ago I was despondent - now I'm living the dream of any young
filmmaker," says Todd Solondz, the gifted 36-year-old writer/director
of "Welcome to the Dollhouse," the unsettling, cruel and perversely
entertaining indie film that won the Grand Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film
Festival and seems to have a good shot at a prize here in Deauville where
it is the last of ten films to be presented in competition. "The title
I wanted was "Faggots and Retards"," says Todd, smiling rather
sweetly. "This is the language that kids use on a daily basis."
At least they don't miss an opportunity to use it whenever Dawn "Wienerdog"
Wiener is on hand, trying desperately to fit in. Dawn, played to earnest,
geeky perfection by Heather Matarazzo, now 13, is the designated all-purpose
scapegoat and outcast of her 7th grade class at a junior high school in
suburban New Jersey. "I made this a brutal, acid sort of movie with
a little girl at the center," says Todd of his film, the merciless
yet nuanced portrait of an ugly duckling who's not going to turn into a
swan anytime soon. "Grown-ups know which things really matter,"
Todd adds, "but when you're a kid everything is a matter of life or
With it's sardonic but tellingly true-to-life episodes of taunting, tattling,
teasing and testiness from peers and the thoughtless workaday favoritism
of Dawn's own parents as they lavish attention on her disgustingly adorable
little sister, "Dollhouse" is the kind of film critics grow extra
arms to embrace and the general public sometimes grows extra legs to flee.
Sartre's catchy tag line - Hell is other people - sums up the spiffy socio-comic
undercurrent of "Dollhouse" as it follows Dawn's infernal existence.
(Sartre is no longer with us, but perhaps he would have enjoyed hearing
one of the groups the film's composer Jill Wisoff has performed with: Chocolate
Bunnies from Hell.)
"Reviewers keep saying it's obviously autobiographical and if I were
to make a Western, I hope they'd say the same thing," says Solondz,
bemused. "Nothing in the movie actually happened to me but in a way
it's as if it had. But just for the record, " - Todd pushes up his
oversized glasses as the early afternoon sun hits his Adams apple - "I
was not a little girl. I don't have a little sister and so on and so forth.
There is no stand-in for me."
"Dollhouse" is a concise 87-minute argument against having a family.
Does Solondz think there's any socialization process that's NOT destructive?
"Certainly there's a universality of experience in the farewell to
childhood," Solondz opines. "There's almost a sort of primal aspect
to it. Some cultures foster the behavior more than others - I'm sure America's
pretty high on the list. I imagine Margaret Mead might have found places
where they're all very nice to each other."
As it turns out, the popular "kids" weren't very nice to "Dollhouse"
at first. "Cannes rejected it, Venice rejected it, Telluride rejected
it," says Todd, reeling off the names of prominent film festivals.
"Toronto was the turning point. "Dollhouse" has a little
girl being picked on, after all - but people bought the movie and it's gonna
Good, I say. There are far too many movies that try to get at the essential
decency of people. Solondz takes glee in nailing the prevailing cruelty
and one-upsmanship at large in many a cherished institution. "Dollhouse"
is the true, equally funny, flip side of "Clueless" that proves
there is indeed more to life than shopping - there's mental anguish, familial
and broader social persecution and the torturous stirrings of pubescent
hormones coupled with the soul-deadeningly cheerful veneer of suburbia.
"In American films, this period of life is not treated seriously,"
says Solondz, mentioning classics of adolescent angst like "Les 400
coups" or "Pixote". "You have either the cute and cuddly
Disney kid or the evil devil monster. For me it's fertile territory - middle
class kids growing up in the suburbs." Todd especially relished the
chance to capture "that correctional facility architecture that is
endemic to the landscape of American suburbia."
After a few of his NYU Film School short films drew attention in the 1980s,
Solondz was offered three-picture deals by two major Hollywood studios.
But his feature debut, 1989's "Fear, Anxiety and Depression" went
nowhere fast and Solondz dropped out of showbiz. After a few years of "happily
teaching English to recent Russian immigrants," Todd decided to jump
back into the creative fray when a lawyer friend said she could arrange
financing for a low-budget effort.
Solondz says he took it as a compliment when parents of prospective cast
members called the script "sickening" or "depressing"
since that jibes perfectly with the world he was trying to portray. The
film was shot in the summer of 1994 in West Caldwell, New Jersey.
Now go buy a ticket or I'll tell everybody you're a retard and you eat boogers.