Faggots and Retards was my first idea for a title but I had to be responsible" says deadpan director Todd Solondz of his latest feature, now known as Welcome to the Dollhouse. The story of bespectacled Dawn Weiner (known to her unkind peers as "Weinerdog") is a ruthless yet droll picture of childhood and one which will strike a chord with anyone who found their schooldays far from the best days of their lives.

"I was interested in the onset of adolescence," drawls Solondz, "but I wanted to avoid cuteness at any cost. Children are seldom treated as fully human in American movies. They're either portrayed Disney-style - like pets - or they're monsters." To this end, Solondz shows children in all their unvarnished nastiness, as sly, manipulative creatures who, given the chance, will hunt in packs to persecute anyone who is different. In short, his protagonists are miniature adults, enthusiastically soaking up society's rules of engagement. "Notwithstanding what you see on TV and in the papers, most kids growing up in the suburbs are not having sex, shooting up or killing their teachers," he states drily. "Junior High School is fraught with enough terrors of its own. I didn't need the conventions of sex and violence."

Instead, Solondz filled his movie with unfair grown-ups, painful pre- teen crushes, and vicious bullying. Half-apprehended swear words drop from the mouths of innocents. "Kids may inherit that language without fully understanding what it means," argues Solondz. "They do use swear words to threaten each other, but they're also experimenting and using them to understand one another." This naive bad-mouthing can seem touching to urbane film-makers like Solondz, but the censor-lobbying Texas Panel of Mothers found it less endearing, signalling their unanimous disapproval for Dawn's use of the word "intercourse".

"I think their judgement was partly due to the fact that it's a girl," reflects Solondz. "There's this idea that for all these things to happen to a child is bad enough, but if it's a girl it's worse. In retrospect, I'm glad I chose to have a girl at the centre of what is quite an `acid' movie. It dispels certain ideas that girls are sensitive and boys are strong, that cruel girls don't exist."

As a weedy guy with big specs, Solondz has inevitably been asked whether the film is autobiographical. "I'm glad because it means the movie feels authentic," says the director diplomatically, "but it's fiction. The story of my childhood was a different nightmare." After the success of Welcome to the Dollhouse, Solondz is now working on his next feature, but he's giving little away. All he'll admit for now is that "it's got adults in it".