Cruel and unusually funny Review: Seventh grade is not for the meek. That "Dollhouse" turns so much pain into so much humor is no mean feat.

July 03, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Youth is far too painful to be wasted on the young. That's the tragic thrust under the mordant hilarity of Todd Solondz's new film, "Welcome to the Dollhouse," opening today at the Charles.

What a sad, funny poem to the exquisite agonies of being a

seventh-grader, gifted and a nerd! Poor Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), christened "Weinerdog" and "Lesbo" by her sensitive peers, is a walking geek tragedy crammed into 4-feet-5 inches and 85 pounds, behind lenses thick as thumbs.

She attracts persecutors in a way remarkably similar to the sugar and its cloud of flies. The cheerleaders love to put her down. The tough-kid set bombards her with spitballs and profanities. Even the few non-clique members floating through the Hobbesian world of middle school betray her at every opportunity, afraid of attracting their own persecutors by showing her any mercy. Meanwhile, her teachers reward her with indifference and injustice.

But Dawn's agonies aren't restricted to school. Clearly the least loved of three New Jersey suburban kids, she watches as her mother and father ladle affection on her pirouette-perfect ballerina of a little sister; meanwhile, her older brother is earnestly pleasing mom and dad by charting his way into "the Ivies. Maybe not one of the top three, but definitely an Ivy." He talks like the executive-of-the-week at the Burger King HQ, and plays rock and roll because "that'll really look good on my resume."

For much of its bittersweet running time, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" is a mock documentary on the native savagery of children. Ever-assailed Dawn must eject the pain that is festooned on her someplace, so she quite casually and cruelly turns it on an admiring neighbor boy. We understand that by the eternally melancholy physics of such events, he in turn will pass it down the line when he is able to. Misery, like matter, cannot be destroyed but only reassigned.

Then why is it so funny? It's wonderfully funny, for Dawn's passivity acts like a magnet that draws the poisons out of others. Each horrid human vanity is exposed by her tragic insipidity; she's like an anti-philosopher's stone, rendering each person into his baser self. Brandon (Brendan Sexton Jr.), the bully, is driven nuts by her; her brother can't stand her; her sister rats her out and her mom is quick to punish, slow to forgive and uninterested in understanding.

Into this vale of tears come a few grace moments. In her masochistic way, she loves Brandon; in his sadistic way, he loves her and for all his aggression gives her his most precious gift, the awareness of his vulnerability. Then there's Steve, a high school kid and make-out artist, who by not rejecting her axiomatically gives her just the faintest whisper of hope. He's a lousy cowboy, but he's the only cowboy there is in Jersey.

The plot clicks in late, a comic riff on the horror of kidnapping. Solondz, who wrote and directed (and probably lived) the story, gets onto thin ice when he's cracking deadpan boomers about the possible murder and molestation of a child, but with the faith and luck of the young, and the guts of a burglar, he brings it off.

The movie is brutal (not physically but mentally) and funny at once, driven forward by the indefatigably game Matarazzo. Far from one of those precious mini-Ethel Mermans that seem always to get the prime roles in movies about kids, this child is sweet, smart and tragic, and comes in the end to stand for some kind of icon to human possibility. It's a great performance, if it's a performance at all.

'Welcome to the Dollhouse'

Starring Heather Matarazzo and Brendan Sexton Jr.

Directed by Todd Solondz

Released by Sony Pictures

Rated R (language)

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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