Heather Matarazzo is the bravest actress I have ever seen. Let stars already secure as glamour-pusses demonstrate how bold they can be by working without lipstick. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, Todd Solondz’s wonderfully funny-shading-into-brutal Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner about adolescent hell, Matarazzo maintains spectacular poise while playing Dawn Wiener, a miserably unpopular, dorky, nearsighted seventh grader. Dawn is called ”ugly,” ”lesbo,” and ”Wienerdog” by her classmates, and she’s ignored by her clueless family in contemporary suburban New Jersey. Yet Matarazzo — costumed in geeky eyeglasses and a tragically uncool wardrobe that does no favors to her preteen body — withstood the scripted taunts while enduring the real insecurities of being a regular 11-year-old girl, discovered by the filmmaker at a New Jersey mall.
It’s a scientific fact that humans are never crueler to one another than during the junior high school years. If your seventh-grade graduate’s fists don’t clench in anxious empathy during the movie’s opening scene as Dawn carries her awful tray full of barfy food into the hideous school cafeteria filled with horrible schoolmates, desperately searching for a safe place to sit, then you were educated by home schooling. Dollhouse focuses on Dawn’s attempts to survive, simply survive: Her older brother is a nerd obsessed with compiling a college-worthy school record; her doted-on younger sister is a simpering, manipulative ballerina wannabe; her only friend is a runty neighbor boy the other kids call a ”faggot”; a school bully threatens to rape her; and she’s got a paralyzing crush on an unworthy heartthrob who sings in her brother’s terrible garage band.
But Solondz also creates keen portraits of the participating characters in Dawn’s daily drama. (The only downside: The drama veers unsteadily toward outlandishness.) In particular, the affectless violence of Brandon the bully (Brendan Sexton Jr., another acting novice), stripped away, reveals just another scared kid trying to survive his own miserable home life. Dawn’s brother (Matthew Faber, from The Pallbearer), talentlessly honking away on his clarinet, opens a window into the special misery of teenage boys. And did I mention that Dollhouse is smartly comic? I have a feeling that Dawn Wiener — and Heather Matarazzo — will one day soon bloom into talented and beautiful young women. When they do, I hope they can also write movies as sharp as this one. A-