The Agony Of Adolescence

THE SHEER GODFORSAKEN AWFUL- ness of adolescence has rarely been so acutely portrayed as it is in Todd Solondz's painfully funny Welcome to the Dollhouse. Here is the junior-high-school experience as suffered by 11-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), a hopeless outcast in geek glasses doomed to be known as ""Wienerdog'' to her pitiless classmates. Things aren't any better at her New Jersey home, where her irritatingly cute kid sister Missy gets all the attention from Mom and Dad, her nerdy older brother Mark picks on her, and she develops a thoroughly misplaced crush on the hunky lead singer of Mark's hapless garage band. The only classmate to take an interest in Dawn is the troubled school bully Brandon (Brendan Sexton Jr.), whose threats of rape are a twisted sign of an affection he's too embarrassed to reveal.

Solondz purges all sentimentality from his tale. No swain awaits to turn this duckling into a swan; Dawn's torment does not serve to ennoble her. Preyed upon by the stronger and more popular, she apes their cruelty by casting her own epithets -- ""retard,'' ""faggot'' -- upon those even lower on the pecking order. The beauty of ""Welcome to the Dollhouse'' is its pokerfaced objectivity, which neither condescends to its pubescent victim nor romantically inflates her plight. Solondz, whose film won the top prize at Sundance, refuses to let the audience traffic in nostalgia: you'll laugh and wince simultaneously -- and be very grateful that you'll never be 11 again.