With Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Happiness (1998), director Todd Solondz established himself as one of the most eloquent interpreters of suburban hell and general human dysfunction. Himself a product of the suburbs he portrays in his films, Solondz was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1960. Saddled with years of suburban experience and a decidedly unconventional appearance (one of his trademarks is the thick black glasses that distort his face), Solondz decided to funnel his energies into filmmaking and duly enrolled at New York University's film school.
On the strength of a few film shorts he made while at NYU (including "How I Became a Leading Artistic Figure in New York City's East Village Cultural Landscape" for Saturday Night Live), Solondz was offered three-picture deals by two major Hollywood studios. Unfortunately, his first film, Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989) failed miserably. Following this disappointment, Solondz dropped out of filmmaking for a while, opting to teach English to Russian immigrants.
An arrangement with a lawyer friend who secured him funding for a low-budget effort brought Solondz back into filmmaking, and the result was Welcome to the Dollhouse. The bleak, unforgiving, and perversely hilarious tale of pubescent outcast Dawn "Wienerdog" Wiener (played expertly by Heather Matarazzo) was first shown at the Toronto Film Festival (after being rejected from several other prominent festivals), and then at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded the festival's Grand Prize in 1996. Upon its general (arthouse) release, Dollhouse was greeted with a positive reception, although more than one critic had trouble with the film's punishing content.
Welcome to the Dollhouse's critical controversies were overshadowed by Solondz's next effort, 1998's Happiness. A very, very black comedy that served up a heaping dose of suburban dysfunction, Happiness, in the words of producer Christine Vachon, was a "nonjudgmental film about a pedophile." One of its central plotlines--about a father who has an unnatural attraction to his young son's friends--caused sizable unhappiness among various critics and cultural watchdogs. However, the film also won considerable acclaim, premiering at the 1998 Cannes Festival to a positive reception and going on to establish Solondz further as one of the most original and provocative directors of his era.
Now a bona-fide auteur, Solondz began work on his next feature, courting Hollywood buzz and more controversy in equal measure. A planned triptych of tales about the fine line between authorship, fiction and reality, 2001's Storytelling found its plot threads cut down to two when heartthrob James Van Der Beek backed out of the production. It was the first segment - featuring Selma Blair as a naïve student whose professor (Robert Wisdom) demands she yell out racial epithets during sex - that garnered the wrath of the MPAA, who insisted certain moments be cut if the movie were to avoid a "NC-17" rating. Committed to delivering an "R," Solondz chafed at the restriction, choosing instead to place black boxes over the offending anatomical details. Ultimately, it mattered little, as neither audiences nor critics embraced Storytelling the way they had the director's prior two features.
Four years later, the director regrouped for an even more formally adventurous experiment, the warped coming-of-age tale Palindromes. Chronicling the long, strange journey of a runaway named Aviva, Solondz decided to cast eight actresses of varying age, race and weight in the role; thematically, he touched on such hot-button issues as abortion, teen pregnancy and fundamentalism. Scaled back in both budget and profile, Solondz saw Palindromes open to staunchly mixed reviews and meager box-office.