Todd Solondz 101: The Master of Discomfort

Todd Solondz makes audiences uncomfortable with his awkward yet realistic films. 

If there is a single filmmaker that has a monopoly on uncomfortable subjects, it's Todd Solondz. He has tackled rape, pedophilia, sodomy, masturbation, bullying, abortion, teen pregnancy and that's just the tip of the iceberg. What keeps his films from being just shock value is the underpinning of humanity and emotion underneath all the of terrible subjects. Never has life been depicted with such realism and humility than in his small filmography. This article will cover his "trilogy" of sorts: Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998) and Palindromes (2004).

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995):
There have been many coming-of-age films made over the years, but Welcome to the Dollhouse is one of the most subversive and heart wrenching additions to the genre. Simultaneously hilarious and depressing, it manages to capture adolescence in a perfect anguished snapshot. The main character, a nerdy young girl with the unfortunate name of Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), is extremely unpopular at her school and is ostracized by both the teachers and the students. I'm sure anyone who grew up on the outskirts the social elite in school can relate to her predicament. What differentiates Dawn's character from other similar tropes is the fact that she is not depicted as a martyr. She is selfish and vindictive at times (especially towards her pretty younger sister) and while some of that may be attributed to her treatment by her peers, she definitely has some unsavory personality traits.

Mirror Mirror on the wall, who's the most average of them all?

The humor in this film is pitch black and you will feel bad about laughing at certain scenes. Occasionally, it's hard to tell when something is being played for laughs but that makes it interesting to see where the audience members' boundaries lie. Brendan Sexton III had his breakout role as would be rapist and bully Brandon McCarthy. His entire character arc is one of the most insane and strange things about the film. Matthew Faber is also excellent as Dawn's geeky and nihilistic brother Mark--I can't help but think that he is a stand-in for Todd Solodz himself. This film is one of the least scandalous in terms of content but in my opinion is his most touching work.

Happiness (1995)
Out of these three films, Happiness is the most distressing and controversial by far. Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) is a successful psychiatrist and loving family man who harbors a terrible secret. Both his wife and his son have to deal with the repercussions after his crimes are discovered. Though Bill's crimes are incredibly reprehensible, Solondz does an excellent job of making him a vulnerable and relatable character. It's much harder to write a morally ambiguous villain who has complex emotions and motivations. Baker is amazing in this role adding the right amount of sinister intentions and guilt to make it believable. I can imagine it was tough for him to consider taking the role because it's such a distasteful subject, but I commend him for stepping up to the challenge.

No. This isn't looking uncomfortable at all. Wait til we introduce the Catholic priest. 

The film doesn't just focus on Bill's woes, there are also side plots involving his wife Trish's (Cynthia Stevenson) two sisters. Both of them have issues of their own to contend with. Solondz's specialty is painting a realistic portrait of everyday life and both sisters are experiencing ennui and dissatisfaction with their lives. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his stranger roles, plays a perverted loser named Allen who's favorite pastimes include masturbating furiously and making obscene phone calls to women. Ironically, Happiness is about anything but and serves as a destruction of the notion of the "American Dream". While this film is ultimately depressing and nihilistic it does serve as an fascinating character study.

Palindromes (2004)
A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same backward and forward--an example being the word "racecar". In the film Palindromes we follow the adventures of a teenaged girl named Aviva, who's very name is a palindrome as well. In a bold move, Aviva is played by eight different actors/actresses over the course of the film of all different races and genders. The actual character herself doesn't change, just the outer appearance. The other characters in the story make no references to the various versions and act like they are interacting with a young girl. The main focus of the film is Aviva's quest to become pregnant and have a child to love and this opens up a lot of controversial subjects to include: underage sex, statutory rape, and abortions. Aviva ends up traveling around the countryside having unsavory encounters with truck drivers and eventually a weird religious cult called the Sunshine Family.

Yo baby. Give daddy a smooch. 

Since Aviva is played by many different actors the quality of the acting varies. The film is divided into segments with each one featuring a different actor. My favorite segment is the "Mama Sunshine" sequence where Aviva is played by Sharon Wilkins, an obese black woman. The dichotomy between her childish demeanor and her appearance is novel and adds an interesting layer to the narrative. Solondz does not seem to be fond of religious people because they are always depicted in a negative light in all of his films. The Sunshine Family, a foster home run by a fundamentalist religious zealot named Mama Sunshine, (Debra Monk) is creepy and off-putting and has a secret goal that comes to light in the third act of the film. This is the weakest film of the three and it's a little unfocused.  It's worth it just to see the postmodern approach used for casting the main character as I have haven't seen that used very often in cinema.

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  -Michelle Kisner