Todd Solondz is a director most famous for his first film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, a cinema display of awkward teen-ness that remains unrivaled in its ability to highlight youth’s weirdest moments. He’s made a number of movies in the nearly two decades since Dollhouse, all of which are committed to that original cause of refusing to be Hallmark schmaltzy or Hollywood empowering or falsely romantic—Solondz’s films are about troubled people who don’t always grow out of their troubles. That’s important; it only feels increasingly rare to see a movie that has no Oprah-style “A ha!” moment or sentimental ending in which success is guaranteed, so emotionally vanquished we all seem to be that we cry about the results of American Idol. His latest is called Dark Horse, and it’s a rough one, focusing on the unique overgrown sadnesses of a middle-aged man named Abe who lives at home with his parents and collects toys. The movie is out today in select theaters and we spoke to him about not always getting what we want in life and film’s unique ability to make us feel less alone.
Since Welcome to the Dollhouse, there seems to be even more bullshit in the world that makes it harder to be a normal functioning person. Is Abe’s character in Dark Horse a response to this? More chain stores, more muzak, more telephone calls made to customer service representatives, more bad TV. Do you feel that way? I don’t know. Some people are more gifted at being happy and functioning than others. I try to be both, but it’s not easy. I didn’t really think about that, in terms of when I wrote these movies. That’s not to say you’re wrong in any way, but when I work, I do so in more simple terms of the characters and their story. From that emerged a lot of thoughts I may have about the world in which the characters live.
I love how the soundtrack was punctuated by schmaltzy, uplifting, empowerment songs, the kind you hear on American Idol. We have to hear those songs all the time now. The idea with the music was that it was American Idol-type music. The kind of adolescent pop that we’re inundated with. It embodies in some sense the youth that Abe clings to. Those youthful dreams and hopes that are rhapsodized in these songs and the platitudes that you hear. He’s holding on for dear life.
The intended goal of that incessant cheeriness is to uplift us or make us feel better, but for many people it just makes the gap between success and failure that much wider. Exactly. It’s a terrible counter point that Abe lives with, and that a lot of people live with. Yes, you put it better than I could.
Is there specifically something in Abe’s character that makes life harder for him, or is it more a melting pot of circumstances? Well, you have a set of parents who are middle-class, and they have two boys. One goes on to have a successful career as a medical doctor, and the other can’t leave his high school bedroom. In some sense, this kind of dynamic is not unique, but it’s something of a mystery. Why is it that one son is so successful, but the other can’t get anywhere?
It’s not the parents that screw kids up necessarily? It is something of a mystery. You can try and explain it away why someone succeeds and someone fails. The mother treats him like a child. The father doesn’t respect him. But were they so different with the other son? Chances are they were the same parents. Something with this son never quite gelled to make him functional, the way the other son was able to.
Is it important that Abe is explicitly Jewish? I don’t think you have to be Jewish to appreciate what I’ve done here. In this case, I made it explicit enough that he’s Jewish, although it is a secular family, it certainly is not about the experience of being Jewish, but everything is filtered by a Jewish sensibility.
Do you like Abe? That’s part of the conundrum. Abe is so obnoxious and such a spoiled-brat, that you start to feel for the parents, but then you look at those parents and say, “Wait a second, they’re not great either.” In some sense, the aim is to make the character of Abe, who may be very off putting at first, someone who no one would want to hang out with, but find at some point that this is a guy in pain, and that he has an emotional inner life.
Is he a helpless character, though? Are some people on this planet just helpless, unable to change? First of all, I think what’s most important is not does Abe change, but do we as an audience change our understanding of Abe. He is in terrible turmoil and sorrow on the inside. To be able to feel for someone that we would rather just reject is what moves me as a filmmaker. I find that irony very poignant.
I do want to ask, as someone who relates to your films in a very potent way, who feels alienated very often in my life, just as your characters do, do you have any wisdom or advice for the people that love and relate to your movies? I don’t like being looked at as a source of wisdom, and I don’t know if my advice would be so valuable here. I’ve always felt that when I go to the movies and find myself responding very ardently to some film that I’ve just seen, I think the ultimate message in some sense is that you are not alone. There is something moving and embracing about that recognition. That someone else sees something else in the world that you were unable to articulate, but you can see as well, and that connects in some way to the world you live in. That we are not alone is meaningful enough for me.