Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

Directed by Todd Solondz

Welcome To The Dollhouse

Welcome to the Dollhouse is the second film by writer/director Todd Solondz.  His first films is called Fear, Anxiety & Depression, and because of the difficulty he had making the film, Solondz never thought he’d make another one.  His next film after this one would be called Happiness, about a pedophile, and his most recent film Wiener-Dog, is about the somber stories of four sad characters, ending with an old woman pondering her mortality before her dog gets hit by a car.

In Welcome to the Dollhouse, we follow young Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), a social outcast bullied by just about everyone in her life and who lusts after an older boy, hates her lovable sister and consents to one of her bullies despite his insistence that he will sexually abuse her.

“Whether it’s rape, incest, or suicide, no subject is considered remotely taboo to Solondz. It’s the reason he’s utterly hated by many critics, brands won’t allow him to place their product in his films, and his R-rated sex scenes have been covered with a red box for censorship in the past. He’s—falsely—called evil, exploitative, and misanthropic, leaving no hope for his characters. Yet his brilliance has made him one of America’s greatest living cult writer and directors.” – Hannah Ewans, VICE

Our experience with Dawn ranges from uncomfortable to empathetic to utterly perplexed.  And yet there is so much in her character you might identify with, even as she’s giving herself over to a troubled bully or lashing out at her sister using the same bullying methods practiced against her.  She is both a poor outcast and an unpredictable troublemaker.  The complete powerlessness she experiences is somewhat anxiety-inducing, and it forces her to act out in anyway she can.

This behavior leads her to shun her only friend and to unwittingly get her sister kidnapped.  Dawn is a messy character, and everything she says or does is akin to flailing in a pit of quicksand.

“From Wiener to her bully, to awkward kids, perverts, and sex pests in later films, no one shows the liminal and the shunned like Solondz. “Everyone always thinks they’re an outsider,” he says. “And even when you talk to the most popular kids from their high school class, they’ll say that they felt outside in some way. Even if you go from feeling that you’re the outsider to the insider, then you’ll still feel like you’re on the outside of the outside. It’s human nature that on the one hand you’re part of the planet, but also we all have our own point of view that is irreducibly our own.” That’s what makes outsiders such a fascinating subject to return to.” – Ewans, VICE

The plot circulates around two forms of flawed, adolescent affection.  One of Dawn’s bullies, Brandon (Brendan Sexton III) pivots from threatening to kill and rape her to demonstrating an uncomfortably warmth towards her.  In one moment he holds a knife to her throat, and in the next they stare up at the stars together.

Dawn wants to be his girlfriend, she says, but she’s in love with another man.  Scorned and perhaps heartbroken, Brandon dumps her.  Later he asks her to run away with him, but she considers that impractical considering her sister was just kidnapped, and her parents are having a tough time.

That other man, whom Dawn loves so much, his high schooler Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius).  He comes over to play in the band with Dawn’s older brother, Mark (Matthew Faber) as well as to be tutored by him in computer science.  Dawn and Mark look young for their age, but Steve looks as thought he could be thirty.  He’s something like a James Dean crossed with Wooderson from Dazed and Confused.  Everything that appeals to Dawn will likely make him unappealing as he gets older.

The little kindness Steve shows Dawn is quickly replaced by a heavy apathy, but it’s enough to hook her in.  In subsequent scenes, Dawn’s inability to identify just how little he cares for her is almost gut wrenching.  She’s drowning, and she’s reaching for a cinderblock, mistaking it for a lifeline.

Between these two ‘love’ stories, Dawn is just trying to survive.  Her younger sister, Missy, is much-loved, and between her cuteness and Mark’s personal ambition, Dawn becomes invisible as the middle child.  Her parents express little beyond contempt for her.  Like in school, she is bullied at home for not participating in the family pleasantries or for apologizing for behavior that we see is fostered through her mistreatment at school.  No one could properly diagnose Dawn’s issues because so many of the problems are perpetuated behind closed doors, whether at home or in school bathrooms where she is tortured by the girl who’s in love with Brandon.

In Welcome to the Dollhouse, suburbia is a horror show.  The blandness of home-life and school is made sinister in its lack of empathy.  It’s not so much that these institutions are trying to kill you, just that they don’t care to stop the people who are.  At school it’s not even just the bullies (who all deface her locker) but even the teachers, one of whom chides Dawn for ratting on a student who cheats off her test and who criticizes her for grade-groveling.

Kids are mean, and her parents are short-tempered, not looking far beyond the immediate needs of a child, whether food, shelter or physical safety.  Because the wounds Dawn suffers can’t be seen, they might as well not exist, but we watch the slow erosion of her character throughout the film.

And yet… she maintains some kind of heart.  Early in the film we witness Dawn intervene when another student is being bullied, only for the student to call her “wiener dog” and run away.  Later she takes a bus to New York to search for her sister (whose disappearance was because of a small choice Dawn made), and her parents never realize she even left.

Dawn is still trying, she still cares, but the world is intent on beating this out of her.  In the end nothing changes.  Her brother tells her that she can’t expect school to get any better, and the film ends with her lost in a sea of children singing on a school bus.  If life is just a game, Dawn doesn’t know how to play it.

The film feels like an Alexander Payne movie, specifically 1999’s Election.  In that film Matthew Broderick played a sad sack of a teacher who commands our empathy but soon betrays it as he reveals just how small of a man he is.  In fact, in Payne’s later film About Schmidt, he told actor Jack Nicholson, “Jack, I want you to play a small man.”

Payne’s movies often follow futile characters who struggle to exert any kind of authority. They’re slowly sinking and swinging their fists at the same time.  Welcome to the Dollhouse, though, is much darker than Payne’s work.  It’s not just that Dawn is powerless but that she lives in a world that won’t let her be happy.  She’s a product of her environment compared to being a dark whole in an otherwise bright world.

Like his other work, Solondz presents this world with objectivity and no sentimentality.  He’s not trying to make us feel something or convince us of anything.  He’s just saying that this is how it is, the world is a mean place.

Up Next: Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach (2008), Geostorm (2017), Wind River (2017)

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