Mr. Todd's Wild Ride

The biggest stories at the Sundance Film Festival are often those of the struggling filmmakers themselves: how Quentin Tarantino languished for years behind a video store counter, how Ed Burns shot "The Brothers McMullen" at his parents' house. This year, it's Todd Solondz's turn to leap from don't-quit-your-day-job obscurity.

Published January 28, 1996 2:58PM (EST)

Her classmates call her "Weiner Dog." Or, on a good day, "lesbo." Dawn
Weiner has it rough: she's not very pretty, her social skills are just a
bit underdeveloped, and she's stuck in the hell on earth known as seventh
grade. But Dawn's not a mere loser: she's a survivor, a rebel. She has an
intense crush on the lead singer in her older brother's garage band, she
wants to kill her darling little sister -- and she's one of the most
believable adolescent movie characters in memory.

In his film "Welcome to the Dollhouse," which won the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic feature at the recent Sundance Film Festival,
36-year-old writer/director Todd Solondz has managed to depict the agonies
of suburban pubescence in way that's as compassionate as it is darkly
hilarious. His script perfectly captures the name-calling and ingeniously
cutting insults that fly through school hallways (in fact, originially
Solondz wanted to title the film "Faggot-Retard"), and yet the story reveals
the essential humanity lurking within the little monsters as well.

Solondz himself is a battered but unbowed survivor of a cruel milieu, also
the province of bullies and name-callers: Hollywood. Having made several
acclaimed shorts as a graduate student at New York University's film
school, he was wooed by the major studios and ultimately signed
three-picture deals with both Fox and Columbia. His first feature, "Fear,
Anxiety, and Depression," was released in 1989 by the Samuel Goldwyn
Company, and was, as Solondz himself says, "a disappointment." Utterly
disenchanted, Solondz turned his back on the film business and, for several
years, taught English to Russian immigrants. He was convinced he would never sit in a director's chair again.

Money from a family connection finally gave him the impetus to return to filmmaking; he shot "Welcome to
the Dollhouse" from a script he'd written several years before.
Shortly after its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, the film
was snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics; it will be released in late May.

We talked with Solondz on the eve of his triumphant comeback at the Sundance Festival.

Your career took off at an amazing pace after film school. Then what
happened? How did you get so profoundly disillusioned with the studios?

Ultimately, you lose your creative autonomy. You don't own your script,
you're essentially a director for hire, which is the way things work at the
studios. It was demoralizing and I left the business for several years
because I had been so unhappy. But you put that behind you as best you can,
and try to move on. And lo and behold, I did move on, I did return to this
film business which I thought I would never return to. And in the case of
"Welcome to the Dollhouse," I still was able to own my material, and so
was able to retain creative autonomy. This is also a much smaller-scale
film, with private investors involved instead of film industry people, so
there was it "back-seat driving."

The suburban adolescent's world view is so well-remembered in this film.
Does seventh grade loom particularly large in your memories?

I think that time of life lives large somewhere in the minds of everyone.
The source of the film really is the experience, observations and memories
that I have, or things that friends of mine may have told me about their
childhood, some sort of amalgamation of it all. Very often in films we see,
this period of life is not treated with much reality -- we tend as adults to
sentimentalize and sugarcoat this time of life. And I think it is a very
critical passage we all had to go through, so we should look at it for what
it is, and not as what we like to comfort ourselves with.

In your view, it seems, junior high is sort of a Darwinian jungle, where
sheer survival is the only thing that matters. I love how the Weiner
siblings never stick up for each other, but instead take advantage of each
others' weak moments. That's how it was in my house.

It is a tough world and kids don't quite have the mechanisms in place that
adults have for playing this game of survival. I think, in other words,
they're much more boldfaced and much more direct. If they don't like
something, they just say it, and there's some cruelty there. What interests
me, however, is the way these kids struggle amid this cruel, difficult,
horrible world, but still salvage moments of beauty, of grace, whatever you
want to call it -- tenderness. It's that struggle that compels me as
filmmaker. Just to say that it's a cruel world is not very interesting, and
just to say that someone is a victim of this world is not very interesting.
The persecutor and the persecuted live within each of us, I think, and
it's that dynamic, that struggle that I like to investigate.

Heather Matarazzo, who plays Dawn, is a natural, a perfect fit for the
role. Did you find her out in the wilds of Jersey?

No, I wish I had -- only because it's a better story if I could say that I
found at her at Baskin Robbins at a mall in New Jersey. I did spend
many weekends with my casting director looking for kids in malls, but
ultimately she was submitted by her manager. This is her first feature
film, so I can't say she had much in the way of experience, but as you see
she made my job so much easier. If you have the right actor in the right
role, it becomes very easy to direct.

When you have Branden, the school bully, threatening to rape Dawn, it's
fairly harrowing. Or an 11-year-old talking about finger-fucking...

When we were casting, there were many kids who were eliminated once their
parents read the script. Even though there's no sex, no nudity, no violence
in this movie, it is rated R. And the movie is very unsettling in
ways -- it's as if all that sex and violence is there, but not on any
literal level. And I think adults and parents recognize this and so it's
not a comforting film. But I hope that it's an engaging one for people,
that people find it funny and even poignant.

I did -- I even thought that Dawn's sweet little kiss with Branden was kind
of erotic.

That's out of your mouth, I'm not gonna say that, but I will say it's very
tender -- and moving for me, because in fact it was Heather's very first one
in real life as well. It really is a very special sort of coming together
of these two characters, the two extremes of the class, one the bully and
the other the persecuted and picked-on. And together they find a certain
kind of bond with each other that I think is very unexpected -- and yet when
it happens it seems very natural and very real.

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By Debra Jo Immergut

Debora Jo Immergut covers new media and the Internet for the Wall Street Journal. She is the author of a collection of short fiction, "Private Property."

MORE FROM Debra Jo Immergut

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