Todd Solondz, the 42-year-old writer-director of the critically acclaimed Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996) and the ironically titled Happiness (1998), is anything but kind to his audience. His films are littered with pedophiles, pre-teen sex fiends and smart-ass kids who are simultaneously likable and deplorable, virtuous and villainous, pathetic and funny. The audience's sympathies lie with everyone and no one. "If you're looking for heroes and villains," Solondz said in a recent phone interview, "you won't find them in my work."

His latest film, Storytelling, has two sections, and although the plots are unrelated, Solondz says, "There are thematic overlaps. It's two stories, two tones, but there are dots that can be connected."

The first section, "Fiction," relates the story of Vi (Selma Blair), a not-so-sophisticated college student, and Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), a passionate but paranoid student with cerebral palsy. Both characters write intimate accounts of their troubled life experiences for their fiction class. Their teacher, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), is a Pulitzer-winning professor who offers his students nothing but insults and humiliation. His bitterness seeps beyond the classroom, as he manipulates his female students into sexual encounters that can't quite be considered rape, but come close.

"Nonfiction" presents Toby (Paul Giamatti), a documentary filmmaker who travels to the New York suburbs, seeking subjects for a film about the college admission process in the "post-Columbine era." There, he finds the Livingstons, a well-to-do family dominated by the father, Marty (John Goodman), whose only agenda is seeing his sons--Mikey (Jonathan Osser), Brady (Noah Fleiss) and Scooby (Mark Webber)--get into good colleges. Scooby, who becomes the focus of Toby's film, is a shaggy, confused, layabout high-school senior whose only ambition is to become the next Conan O'Brien.

After viewing some of his early footage, Toby wonders if he has accurately portrayed his subjects or exploited them, loved them or mocked them. When Scooby walks into the documentary's first public screening, the audience is doubled over with laughter. Besides asking whether or not Toby's motives were honorable, Scooby must also face the possibility that his family is truly as ridiculous as the film shows.

Both sections of the film are quintessential Solondz: The almost nonexistent soundtrack provides no emotional cues for the audience, there are no neat tie-ups, and there are no easy outs. It is impossible to invest oneself in any character. Even the overworked El Salvadorian maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), who is overflowing with sympathetic qualities for most of the film, eventually becomes villainous.

Not surprisingly, the hollow ache at the heart of all Solondz's films is intentional. "I don't feel the need to give a sequel to the events that take place," he says, explaining his open-ended conclusions. "My movies put more demands on the audience."

Storytelling is unlikely to be a film people seek for entertainment. But for those willing to have their comfort challenged, it is a must see. Even Solondz acknowledges that his films are unsettling for audiences. "Especially," he says, in his typically ambiguous way, "for people who like them."


Not Rated (Mature Audiences Only)

Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 9 pm Friday- Thursday, Feb. 8-14. Additional shows 10:45 pm Friday- Saturday, 12:45, 2:45 and 4:45 pm Saturday- Sunday.