"Welcome to the Dollhouse" is too uneven to be an accurate depiction of the hazards of junior high school. It does, however, introduce the world to Heather Matarazzo.
Relatively unknown outside of her work in the Nickelodeon television series "The Adventures of Pete and Pete," Matarazzo puts in a truly memorable performance in her big-screen debut. But "Welcome to the Dollhouse," which won last year's Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, is too bleak and too coarse to match her.
Writer/director Todd Solondz obviously knows what it's like to be picked on in junior high. The situations and language are so coarse and disturbing that they outweigh the much better comedic elements, though.
Matarazzo plays the film's 11-year-old "heroine," Dawn Weiner, possibly the least popular person in the seventh-grade class at Benjamin Franklin Junior High in New Jersey. With her buck teeth, thick glasses and extremely unflattering wardrobe, Dawn is dubbed "weinerdog" by her classmates and endures their endless taunts and threats.
Dawn's home life isn't any better. Her parents (Angela Pietropinto and Bill Buell) lavish attention and affection on her ballerina little sister, Missy (Daria Kalinina), who baits her into confrontations. And, of course, her parents never punish their little princess.
Also, Dawn is confounded by Brandon McCarthy (Brendan Sexton Jr.), who has threatened to rape her but seemingly wants to be her boyfriend. Meanwhile, the man of her dreams, dopey high school stud Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius), would rather sing in her brother's garage band, the Quadratics, than get involved with her.
When Solondz aims to skewer the nuclear family, he's usually right on target. Particularly funny are the scenes in which Dawn tries to retaliate at Brandon and some other boys who are taunting her during a school assembly, only to have her spitwad strike a teacher in the eye, and the anniversary scene, where the Quadratics sing a polka-style tribute to the parents, with unintentionally hilarious lyrics.
However, he also makes the mistake of trying to get sympathy for Brandon, the bully who threatens to rape Dawn. Though it appears later that it was an idle threat, he has already been established as a thug.
And that's really "Welcome to the Dollhouse's" biggest problem — none of its characters are sympathetic enough to care about. Like "Kids," an even more unflattering portrayal of young Americans, the film's major characters are lacking in heart.
Sure, Dawn is mercilessly hounded, but her treatment of others, like the foul-mouthed tirades she unleashed on her little sister and her best friend, Ralphy (Dimitri Iervolino), are almost as despicable as those she receives.
Instead, the film could have been saved if Solondz had given it a better balance between humor and drama. As it stands, it is too relentless and confrontational.
But Matarazzo's performance is so superb, it's almost possible to overlook the movie's huge flaws. She conveys the right vulnerability and geekiness, even if some of her salty dialogue would make a longshoreman blush.
Some of the performances in the film are also good. Kalinina is perfectly alternatingly adorable and insidious, while Sexton and Mabius are effectively brooding and vacuous, respectively.
"Welcome to the Dollhouse" is rated R for violence, profanity, vulgarity, the attempted rape scene and nude photos.