WITH HIS THICK glasses and weary manner of speaking, Welcome to the Dollhouse writer-director Todd Solondz has been described as a cross between Woody Allen and his film's pre-teen heroine, Dawn Wiener. Although the success of Dollhouse has given Solondz, 36, a measure of popularity not reached by his protagonist, he still looks like the suffering artist-type who in 1989 parlayed his NYU film school degree into a comedy flop with the Allenesque title Fear, Anxiety and Depression--an experience that left him fearful, anxious, and depressed about filmmaking. Sitting down for a chat in the office of Lagoon Cinema, Solondz admits to being less than excited about the promo tour he's doing for his sophomore feature. "I'd rather be at home," he says, sounding kind of sad. "It's nice having something to promote, but I'd like to move on."
Luckily, since Solondz secured the financing for Dollhouse himself, he didn't have to sit down much with heads of studios, or endure their inevitable "suggestions" about the script. "There was nothing to pitch with this film anyway," Solondz says. "No one would have bothered trying to hit the ball. It's a movie about kids, but it's not a kids' movie. There's no nudity or sex or violence, either. And it isn't Stand By Me. It's a comedy about pain. It was only after Toronto [Film Festival, last fall] when all the usual suspects started bidding on it. I felt a little bit like I'd pulled the wool over their eyes--that if they saw the movie again, they'd change their minds." No one did. In fact, after being sold for big bucks to Sony Pictures Classics, this underdog movie-that-could went on to succeed even further at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, under a steady stream of rave reviews.
Speaking of festival causes célèbres, Solondz thinks his film differs greatly from Larry Clark's Kids (which was shot at the same time, in the summer of '94)-- mainly through its subversion of sitcom/Afterschool Special conventions rather than documentary/neo-realist ones, and also through its focus on the plight of suburban teens. "Notwithstanding what you read in the news or see on Oprah, I don't believe most kids of this age in the suburbs are having rampant sex and shooting up and killing their teachers," Solondz says. "These things do happen, but they're the exception. Nevertheless, junior high school in the suburbs is full of its own sort of terror. I didn't need to exaggerate what's really out there."
So, on to the obvious question: How much of the film represents the actual childhood experience of the filmmaker--who, like Dawn Wiener, grew up in suburban New Jersey? "Well, I should say for the record that I did not grow up as a little girl, nor did I have a little sister," Solondz says. "It is a work of fiction; if it were a book, it wouldn't be in the autobiography section. When people ask about the autobiographical aspects of the movie, I feel deceptive if I claim there are some, and equally so if I claim not. Nothing in the film actually happened to me, but at the same time, it can't help representing how I feel. If I were to make a western as my next film, it would be just as autobiographical."
Although he claims to have never sat through festival screenings of the movie ("I felt it was finished, so I couldn't have changed anything anyway"), Solondz acknowledges that the experience of watching Dollhouse means different things to different people. "The movie elicits a complicated response," he says. "Some people walk out saying, 'Oh, that was hilarious,' and other people find it excruciating, and don't respond to the humor. In my mind, it's a comedy. It is a very sad comedy--harsh, and at times even brutal, but it's a comedy. I mean, in spite of what she goes through, Dawn doesn't jump out the window. To me, that's a pretty positive thing."