Welcome to the Dollhouse
Screenplay : Todd Solondz
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Heather Matarazzo (Dawn Wiener), Brendan Sexton Jr. (Brandon McCarthy), Matthew Faber (Mark Wiener), Daria Kalinina (Missy Wiener), Angela Pietropinto (Mrs. Wiener), Bill Buell (Mr. Wiener), Eric Mabius (Steve Rodgers)
Welcome to junior high hell, courtesy of Todd Solondz's black comedy "Welcome to the Dollhouse." If junior high were this bad, I must've blocked it out. But then again, I think very few of us had it as bad as Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), Solondz's gawky, bespectacled heroine.
First of all, she's saddled with a last name like Wiener, which makes her an easy target for names such as "Wiener Dog" which her schoolmates have scrawled all over her locker. She has a crush on a local high school stud (Eric Mabius) who doesn't know she exists, and the one boy who potentially likes her is Brandon (Brendan Sexton, Jr.), a cruel misfit who hides his insecurities by threatening to rape her after class. Plus, Dawn is caught between her brainy older brother Mark (Matthew Faber), who views every situation as an opportunity to put another line on his college resume, and her much fawned over younger sister Missy (Daria Kalinina), who spends much of her time in a ballet tutu, showing off how cute she is.
Dawn doesn't have a single person on her side. Her parents think she's weird because she doesn't have any friends, and her mother doesn't shy away from showing favoritism toward Missy. Her teachers don't like her, the principle doesn't trust her, and whenever she tries to ingratiate herself with the other kids, she gets it spit back in her face. Early in the film she saves a younger boy from being beat up by some older kids, and when she asks him if he's okay, he pushes her off him, saying, "Get away from me, wiener dog!"
In "Welcome to the Dollhouse," first time writer director Solondz has done a remarkable thing æ he has created an utterly honest and realistic portrait of the ugliness inherent in middle school kids. Solondz exaggerates everything just a bit, achieving two purposes. First, he gives the film a blackish, almost satirical edge that takes away some of the pain of reality. And secondly, it gives the film a junior high viewpoint because kids think the smallest things are the end of the world. What hurts as an adult is absolutely devastating when you're thirteen, whether that be losing your first boyfriend or trying to find a place to sit in a crowed lunchroom.
But the real strength of the film is Solondz's keen understanding of his characters and why they act the way they do. He understands the pecking orders in junior high society, and how kids are mean to those under them to increase their own power. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is insecure and awkward at twelve and thirteen, and the ones that seem more adjusted are the ones that have managed to rise to the top by stepping on others' heads.
Solondz doesn't shy away from showing Dawn, who is quite possibly the lowest of the low, striking out at other kids she deems below her. He never wallows in sentimentality or tries to force us to sympathize with Dawn. He shows how debasement travels down the chain of childhood society, with Dawn being one of the links despite her outsider status.
In one scene, a group of cheerleaders ask Dawn if she's a lesbian, and then in the next scene, we see Dawn and her sister fighting over the TV, and Dawn calls her a lesbo. Of course, when the cheerleaders did it, they got laughs from all the other kids, but when Dawn tries to strike out in such a manner, she only succeeds in alienating herself further. Herein lies the key to the pecking order: the ones who can insult and profit by it are powerful, and those like Dawn who try to insult and only end up hurting themselves are the weak.
So much of the film hinges on Matarazzo's shoulders. As Dawn, she is given the vexing task of portraying a weak and often frustrating character who the audience must sympathize with. She does a marvelous job, balancing Dawn's insecurities with a spark of rebellion and a generally good nature that is constantly twisted by those around her. We forgive her faults and some of her stupid choices because we realize we'd probably do the same thing if we were stuck in her shoes.
"Welcome to the Dollhouse" is a startling debut film from an obviously talented writer/director. By cutting through all the shallow feelings displayed in so many teenage films, Solondz got down to the heart of the matter. There's nothing simple about being a kid, a fact too many adults have chosen to forget.
©1997 James Kendrick