Insightful look at an unattractive 7th grader as she struggles to cope with un-attentive parents, snobbish classmates, a smart older brother, an attractive younger sister, and her own insecurities.
For the debut effort of former English teacher Solondz takes the entire genre and turns it on its head, making a refreshing black comedy destined to provoke a nervous reaction among all those who couldn't wait to turn their back on the classroom for good.
Life for 11-year-old Dawn Wiener (Matarazzo) is far from easy, blessed as she is with an eye-damaging wardrobe, a worrying lack of social skills, and siblings (computer nerd brother, ballerina sister) more accomplished at everything and popular with her parents than she is.
Over the course of one nightmare school year she withstands constant taunts while her childish naiveté sees her strangely drawn to her brother's slacker friend Steve (Eric Mabius), an episode which results in a painfully embarrassing attempt to get into his hipsters. Most of the appeal hinges on Dawn as she lurches from one moment of pre-pubescent awkwardness to another buoyed by the thin hope that things might get better in high school, culminating in an inconclusive and rather unsatisfying denouement.
However, the humour is deliciously dark (upped a notch by some ironically placed classical music), and the all-too-familiar topics of peer group pressure and conformity tackled with sympathy, while Matarazzo (11 at the time of filming) offers up an astonishingly mature performance that suggests hers will be a name to watch.
It may not be to everybody's taste, but this is a daring antidote to its more saccharine cousins.