Going back to school can be so, so brutal. You knew this, but here’s more evidence: the 1995 breakthrough black comedy from director Todd Solondz and star Heather Matarazzo, which still ranks among the truest-ever movie testaments to suburban middle-school misery.
It begins simply and mercilessly, with oft-taunted scapegoat Dawn “Wiener Dog” Wiener alone in the school cafeteria, gearing up for what will be an unremitting movieful of terrible indignities. We know right away that she’s doomed to be a target, but Matarazzo makes us root for her. Dawn’s a genuine nerd-girl — not the bogus kind who just has to take off her glasses to be gorgeous and accepted — and a paragon of valiant puberty endurance. Although pitiless, Welcome to the Dollhouse remains all the more touching thanks very much to its young star, who breaks our heart with every scene she’s in.
It almost didn’t happen. Solondz disowned his 1989 debut, Fear, Anxiety & Depression, in which he stars as a nebbishy New York playwright, and quit moviemaking thereafter. For years he taught English to Russian immigrants (as does a character in his 1998 film, Happiness). Then a lawyer friend offered him some financing, and Welcome to the Dollhouse was born. After being rejected outright by Cannes, Venice and Telluride, it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
But as Solondz himself likes to remind us, not every ugly duckling gets to become a beautiful swan: His 2004 film, Palindromes, obliquely a Dollhouse sequel, begins with a funeral, at which we learn that Dawn Wiener eventually committed suicide.