In WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1995), Heather Matarazzo plays Dawn Wiener, an unpopular seventh grader who endures a barrage of torment from her classmates, teachers, siblings, and parents. (Solondz could relate.)
“The making of this one was very stressful. As I recall, the first day was pretty disastrous because we were working with a cast and crew who didn’t have a lot of experience. People always ask me if Welcome to the Dollhouse was autobiographical and I say yes, even though none of it actually happened. None of what takes place in the film is related to any literal event in my life, but the whole thing resonates with me on a personal level. I think we can all relate to wanting to be accepted. I really love Dawn Wiener. I love of all my characters, even though I don’t always approve of the things they do and the choices they make, but if I’m being honest, I suppose I don’t love them equally. Parents always tell you that they love all of their children equally, but children know better.”
HAPPINESS (1998) follows the lives of three sisters: Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a successful author who delights in receiving the obscene phone calls of a stranger; Joy (Jane Adams), a teacher who sleeps with one of her students; and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), an upper-middle-class housewife who’s married to Bill, a psychiatrist and a closeted pedophile (Dylan Baker). In one particularly controversial scene, after Bill confesses his secret to his 11-year-old son Billy, the young boy asks his father, “Would you ever fuck me?” Bill’s reply: “No, I’d jerk off instead.”
“Writing about pedophilia and rape is no more difficult than writing a boy-meets-girl story. Telling a story, no matter what kind, is about finding an arc that has a meaning and substance. Pedophilia is something that’s always sensationalized and demonized as the most loathsome of crimes. People would much rather dine with Osama Bin Laden than with a pedophile. I wanted to explore that which is most loathed and ostracized and marginalized by society, and pedophilia aces that trifecta. Happiness challenges the audience, testing the limits of their sympathies—and we all have our limitations. I think that it can be enriching for audiences not to sympathize with Bill, but to recognize that what makes him tragic isn’t that he’s a pedophile, but that he is a father who loves his son.
When I made Happiness, I think I was trying to take advantage of the success of Welcome to the Dollhouse. I wasn’t used to success. Most of my life had been comprised of failure in some form or another. A lot of doors opened after Dollhouse, and I suppose by writing this script I knew I could close a lot of them and see who was left standing.”
STORYTELLING (2001) is split into two distinct halves. The “Non-Fiction” second half of the film centers on the documentation of a high school student’s attempts to get into college. The “Fiction” half follows Vi (Selma Blair), a white aspiring writer who engages in violent sexual intercourse with her black teacher, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom). The sex scene, which had Vi bent over and screaming, “Fuck me, n*****,” was so disturbing to the MPAA that Solondz released the film in this country with a red box blocking the action, rather than remove the scene entirely.
“I was in Telluride after the Happiness screening when a young, slightly tipsy college kid came up to me and told me how hilarious he thought the movie was, especially when that kid got raped. When I heard him say that, I knew I was in troubled waters, but if I want to retain the ambiguity that defines my work, I have to accept the fact that I don’t have much control over the way the audience takes in the information. Even though all of my movies are failures to some extent, I still take pride in them, especially Storytelling. Americans are the only ones fortunate enough to watch a movie with a big red box in it. I think they eventually released a DVD where you could choose between watching the ‘family edition’ or the ‘non-family edition.’ You’d still hear Selma say, ‘N*****, fuck me hard’ in either version, but you just couldn’t see the actual sex act in the family version. In some unexpected way, there are certain pluses to having the red box in the film. I’ve always felt that it’s important for an audience to know what it’s not allowed to see. I was a little squeamish during the filming of it, but not so squeamish that I didn’t ask them to do a few extra takes. It was very intense and very scary, but the actors really were troupers—it wasn’t fun for them, but they soldiered on. They believed in its significance and recognized its importance, and so there was no sense that they were being exploited. When I’ve said in the past that I couldn’t watch it all, well… I did peep.”
PALINDROMES (2004), which Solondz intended as a sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse, opens with Dawn Wiener’s funeral. Among the gathered family members is Dawn’s 13-year-old cousin Aviva (played by eight actors of different ages, genders, and races), who later gets impregnated by a family friend. When her parents force her to get rid of the baby, she runs away and finds refuge in a foster home that welcomes developmentally delayed children and is run by a Christian fundamentalist couple who kill abortion-providing doctors.
“This one took a real pounding from some people, and yet others fiercely embraced it. If you’re in a city like New York or L.A. and you’re dramatizing characters from the Bible Belt, then there’s always going to be a certain amount of questioning about the attitude you take toward them. But I almost have to wonder, If the children hadn’t had disabilities, would it have been much more palatable? I do think there’s almost, in some perverse sense, a kind of prejudice against those with disabilities not being allowed to have their own sense of humor. With all of my films, but especially this one, the parents of my child actors always read the script so that everyone’s on the same page. With adults, it’s a 50/50 bet that they’ll know their lines but children always know them to a tee. Whereas adults often like to improvise, children like to do exactly as I instruct them. If you treat them with respect, they’ll give you gold.”
DARK HORSE (2012) is Solondz’s most straightforward film yet, a quasi-romance between Abe, a stunted 30-something toy collector (Jordan Gelber) who still lives with his parents (an unrecognizable Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken), and Miranda, a deader-than- deadpan misfit (Selma Blair, reprising her role from Storytelling despite the fact that her name has been changed from Vi). Miranda accepts Abe’s rash and premature wedding proposal, but in traditional Solondz fashion, heartbreak is just around the corner.
“With this one I wanted to do a simple boy-meets-girl movie, and I didn’t want to let any of the controversial subject matter that I’ve used in the past impinge upon the story. I’m not so interested in traditional romantic comedies. I think the only tradition I’m interested in pursuing is a tradition of upending traditions, and finding new meaning in the way in which these conventions and old stories are tackled. It’s good to not always give people what they expect, but I don’t think anyone would mistake this for a Wes Anderson movie. The themes of the passage of time and the irretrievability of youth surfaced over the course of writing this, and so it’s fused with a kind of soundtrack inspired by American Idol. I watched that show quite closely when I was writing this, and it touched certain chords in me.”