Todd Solondz is a director perhaps best known for his 1998 film Happiness, a disturbingly bleak yet brilliantly comic film which takes pride of place near the top of lists like The A.V. Club’s “Not Again: 24 Great Films Too Painful To Watch Twice”. His 1996 feature début, available for the first time on DVD, could almost sit alongside its successor—except that it aims to elicit many more laughs from the viewer, rather than just making him squirm. Richard Linklater’s landmark 1992 film Slacker had paved the way for Kevin Smith’s Clerks to be greenlit, which in turn opened the door for Todd Solondz to enter the independent film realm with Welcome to the Dollhouse, a daring coming-of-age black comedy that centres on 13-year-old Dawn Weiner, an awkward teenager in every sense of the word.
Relentlessly tormented by bullies at school, she becomes infatuated with the Jim Morrison-esque lead singer of her nerdy brother’s band, and her sister is kidnapped because Dawn deliberately forgets to give her a message from their mother. The soundtrack is a bizarrely compelling mix of rough-around-the-edges garage rock and selections from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. In many ways, the film can be read as a prequel to the 1988 ur-teen-black-comedy, Heathers, wherein Winona Ryder and Christian Slater conspire to eradicate—with bullets, and at point blank range—a high school clique made up of airhead bimbos who address one another as Heather. The world Solondz creates in Dollhouse is enveloped in the same sense of inescapable adolescent ennui and frustration as Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia and Jonathan Kaplan’s once-banned 1979 cult classic Over The Edge.
The critic and video essayist Matt Zoller Seitz, talking about the TV series Freaks and Geeks, noted that “adolescence [is] a period that grows rosy in the memory but sucks ass when you’re actually living through it.” To its credit, Dollhouse, like Geeks, has that morose ambience down pat. The film was universally praised by critics and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1996. Its brand of pointed dark humour reappears in Solondz’s remarkable but difficult-to-watch 2004 film Palindromes, which references Dollhouse with a title card that reads “In Loving Memory of Dawn Wiener.” Palindromes opens with Dawn’s funeral, revealing that she went to college, gained a lot of weight and eventually committed suicide.