Not all girls want to play with dolls.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is in my opinion Todd Solondz’s best film and, although I enjoyed how excruciating Happiness was, he has never really come close to making anything as good since. Welcome to the Dollhouse perfectly encapsulates the misery of pre-pubescence without the nostalgic gloss of many other films about the experience of childhood.

The rather unfortunately named Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) is an awkward, nerdy 7th grader who is tortured and ridiculed by her peers, teachers and family. Known cruelly but somewhat inevitably as “Wienerdog” at school, she is victim to daily spit balls and branded a “lebso”. She asks one particularly mean girl named Lolita, “Why do you hate me?” which with the cold hearted honesty that only a child could have she replies matter-of-factly, “because you’re ugly.” Of course, she isn’t ugly she’s just in that awkward stage of neither being a child nor a teenager and her poor complexion, bad clothes and horrible glasses don’t help matters either.

At home Dawn is the middle of three children, her older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) is a super smart computer geek who is dedicated to getting into a good college and her pretty little sister Missy is a ballerina and obviously favoured by her parents. Her only friend is the sickly neighbour kid Ralphy, with whom she has set up the “Special People Club”, without realising the irony in the name until it is spelled out to her by local heartthrob and the object of her affection Steve Rogers (“special people equals retarded. Your club is for retards.”)

Perhaps the most interesting relationship in the film is that between Dawn and one of her primary tormentors, Brandon (Brendan Sexton III), a troubled boy whose merciless bullying of Dawn is perhaps a sign that he in fact actually quite likes her. In one scene he tells her that she has to meet him after school and that he plans to “rape” her. It is testament to the quality of the writing and acting that this scene is both amusing and touching. Dawn realises that this is Brandon’s way of asking her on a date and you get the impression that perhaps Brandon doesn’t quite know the best way to display his feelings towards Dawn and that he doesn’t fully understand the depth or meaning of his threats.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is a grim and unflinching look at childhood but it is not without humour and affection. It’s certainly a must for anyone, who like myself, wasn’t particularly popular in school and found it not to be something remembered fondly but instead was filled with relief when it was finally all over.

“You think you’re hot shit, but you’re really just cold diarrhea.” – Ralphy