By: Grace Szostak, Lia Vaiserman, and Alexandra Li
Welcome to the Dollhouse is a 1995 independent/dark comedy film that was filmed largely right here in JCHS. Many other scenes were also filmed around West Caldwell, such as the main character’s home and the 7/11. Director Todd Solondz grew up in Livingston and his films take inspiration from his own upbringing in suburbia. Dollhouse won the grand jury prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and received “two very enthusiastic thumbs up” from Siskel and Ebert. Here are three JCHS students’ take on this film:
Grace Szostak: Dollhouse takes the comedy of adolescent awkwardness to the next level. Main character Dawn Weiner, played by Heather Matarazzo, is an unpopular, outcasted middle schooler. The movie observes the darkly comedic aspects of her life, and makes irreverent commentary on the worst years of everyones’ lives. I often find that too many films are either wallowing in the sadness and melancholy of life or being too upbeat and optimistic about everything. Dollhouse sits somewhere in between: strange, emotionally stunted, real. The film is masterful in its approach to dark comedy, as it is never shocking just for the sake of being shocking, but instead employs the shock factor to provide compelling social commentary. Many of Solondz’s films explore this middle ground, often telling it how it is and showcasing the bleak comedy of everyday life. Many may compare it to the more recent Eighth Grade, which I would consider to be fairly apt. The two films use many similar plot devices and themes, but I believe Dollhouse to do these things better. Even if one was not at all similar to Dawn during their middle school years, they may still find this film relatable due to the overall nightmare that junior high was.
Welcome to the Dollhouse is definitely worth a watch if you are interested in indie films or seeing what JCHS looked like in the 90s. To add to an already great film, it is very enjoyable to point out all of the recognizable locations featured.
Lia Vaiserman: Welcome to the Dollhouse was a very uncomfortable yet a very realistic portrayal of what many young girls experience in middle school. It showcases many awkward scenarios but it also brings light to many important topics that middle schoolers everywhere face. The character of Dawn was very realistic and the movie portrayed her with many flaws, unlike some other films with teenage protagonists. I really enjoyed the movie’s soundtrack as well as it helped bring together the true awkwardness of middle school. One of the scenes where Dawn and her family were having dinner was one of the most awkward scenes– when her mother didn’t give her cake. This scene gave me a lot of second-hand embarrassment, and the lack of background music playing during this part made it even more awkward to watch. As a student at James Caldwell High School, it was very cool to see my own school in a movie. The cafeteria was the opening scene in the movie, yet the cafeteria has hardly changed from the 90’s to now!
Alexandra Li: Welcome to the Dollhouse was masterful in its ability to capture middle-school awkwardness and bring it to the next level. This was probably the most second-hand embarrassment I had from watching a film… ever. Welcome to the Dollhouse deviated from the typical middle school, coming-of-age depiction of childhood, where, though there may be growing pains, things always seem to go up. The film’s protagonist, Dawn, is not exceptional in any way, and throughout the course of the movie, does not acquire any prodigal talents or skills. A typical rendition of her story would fail to capture the brewing and complicated emotions an ordinary, mediocre girl harbors. But Welcome to the Dollhouse was able to accurately portray an average girl and showcase a darker, disappointing side of childhood.
Welcome to the Dollhouse was able to capture the bleakness of childhood, one where circumstances do not improve and where the promise of youth does not guarantee happiness. It was a discomforting watch, sometimes even making me physically squirm, but was incredibly relatable to my own middle school years. I would rate this movie highly and recommend it to anyone looking for a realistic, dark, and novel take on junior high.