Black comedy recalls hell of puberty

by Michael A> Posey | 6/21/96 5:00am

Behind the blue-rimmed Coca-Cola bottle glasses, behind a million dollar smile full of gleaming white teeth, and behind the stretch pants and gaudy t-shirts is Dawn Weiner, a seventh grader whose life seems to vaguely shadow some Judy Bloom novel from junior high.

"Welcome to the Dollhouse," directed by Todd Solondz, is a film which requires viewers to painfully remember their own private junior high hell.

An art-house hit and a winner of a Sundance Film Festival award, "Dollhouse" is a black comedy whose humor lies around the edges of the film.

The audience laughs when Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) is pushed into a swimming pool by her younger sister, everyone giggles when Dawn is chastised by her classmates and viewers practically jump out of their seats and roll in the aisles laughing when a classmate tells Dawn that she will be raped that afternoon.

However, Solondz reminds viewers that Dawn Weiner (whom the kids call Weiner-dog) is not laughing and this is the world in which she must live.

"Dollhouse" gives its viewers a glimpse into the life of Dawn Weiner as she loses at love, friendship and life as an 11-year-old in a New Jersey suburb.

At first glimpse, it seems that Solondz presents Weiner as the girl we could all hate.

She is the one who raises her hand in class to tell the teacher that someone is trying to cheat. She is the one who seems to have the perfect family, and she is the one who seems impervious to all the name-calling and slander.

However, Dawn takes everything to heart and what seems okay on the exterior is later revealed to be just as flawed as Dawn's life.

In everything that Dawn tries, she fails miserably. Her plan to rat on a fellow classmate backfires when she is also given after-school detention.

Her family is composed of an older brother who is the "king of the nerds" in his local high school and a mother who favors her cute younger sister, Missy. And her dreams of romance are dashed when she discovers that her boyfriend-to-be is not interested in her.

"Dollhouse" is a coming-of-age film with bleak prospects for its protagonist.

Although set in a contemporary setting, "Dollhouse" reminds viewers of a time long ago.

In this slow-paced, methodical film, Solondz moves the camera with a heavy, deliberate hand often concentrating on scenes depicting the environment and locale. There are never any jerky, MTV-esque wild camera angles or action-packed climaxes.

From the beginning until the very end the camera and story concentrates on the life and trials of just one character, Dawn Weiner.

Even though the film describes the life of a seventh-grade nobody, it is not necessarily for children. Along with the R-rating, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" deals with many adult themes--jealousy, envy, self-loathing.

It is more than just a film about "The Ugly Duckling," perhaps more like angst with its focused portrayal of what happens during the teenage years.

The film can serve as a reality check for the audience members who believe kids today have it much better and there are no Dawn Weiners out there.

Yet for some people the movie is a mirror of their own adolescence.

Although some of the scenes and encounters in the movie may seem at first farcical, like Dawn's locker laden with graffiti caricatures and quips, these same scenes probably occur all too often here and now in the halls of public schools everywhere.

With this film, Solondz shows how sometimes brutal and terrifying junior high life can be.

In this film he gives us several reminders, including a scene where a girl demands that Dawn use the bathroom before leaving it.

Also Dawn falls headlong for an older guy only to crash when she sees that he is not interested in her.

Matarazzo plays Dawn Weiner with exceptional deftness. Sometimes you wonder if she is actually acting or reacting to what happens to her in her daily life.

And the other characters, especially the members of Dawn's family, contribute greatly to the feel of the film.

Although the movie ends on a relatively quiet note, you can not help but wonder what it would have been like if Dawn was able to seek some revenge.

Dawn never comes out on top during the entire film. For example, in one scene she leaves home for New York to look for her sister who has been kidnapped.

Later she calls home from New York only to find that her mother is too busy to speak with her.

Somewhere between the "Wonder Years" and "Happy Days," "Dollhouse" is evenly filmed and sure-handed.

A sophomoric work by Solondz, the movie lets the audience be the jury -- Is the appropriate response to laugh or to cry?

And moreover, anyone could have been a Dawn, or just as easily one of those students screaming "Weiner-dog."