ANYONE WHO WENT through a few awkward years growing up--who
was perhaps beat up regularly while being called a faggot, or
taunted by girls with better hair, or ridiculed for picking the
wrong table in the cafeteria, or systematically ignored by classmates--should
probably see Welcome to the Dollhouse just to witness such
humiliating and ignominious moments glamorized for eternity on
the silver screen. To see that your shame has been momentarily
transformed into art is, to say the least, mighty satisfying.
It's also a bit disturbing. Welcome to the Dollhouse is
a small, independent film written, directed and produced by Todd
Solondz, who looks to be barely out of junior high himself. It
doesn't really follow the standards of commercial film, and the
humiliation of its central character, Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo),
a.k.a. Wiener Dog, the star loser and scapegoat for the entire
student body of Benjamin Franklin Junior High, is relentless.
In the opening scene, a cluster of giggling girls approaches her
to say, "Excuse me Dawn, we were just wondering, are you
a lesbian?" Later, her teacher makes her write an essay on
the subject of dignity, then forces her to read the degrading
document to a heckling classroom.
Life, for Dawn, is one humiliation after another. Her overbearing
older brother (Matthew Faber) is an uptight computer nerd whose
purpose in life is to perform actions that will "look good
to colleges." Her little sister is an adorable ballerina
who fritters away her days in a pink tutu. She's the light of
the Wiener household, and no one notices Dawn except to threaten,
punish or ridicule her. ("You're not leaving this table until
you tell your sister you love her," Mrs. Wiener tells Dawn.)
Into this hopelessly dim existence steps Steve, a high school
man who has condescended to sing for Dawn's brother's garage band,
known as The Quadratics (you know, like the equations).
Steve is something Dawn has never seen before: A horny, mouth-breathing
lug. She falls for him instantly.
Steve, naturally, turns out to be just another avenue for
Dawn's belittlement. Welcome to the Dollhouse continually
shies away from allowing its heroine any scant moments of triumph,
payback, or happiness. If this was a Hollywood film, Dawn the
Wiener Dog would be ridiculed for the first half, then would pick
up a ray-gun and start melting faces in the second. Mercifully,
that doesn't happen, though Solondz does seem torn between making
a devastating portrait of what it means to be an outcast, and
joining in the taunting of the outcast himself.
In the second half of the film, events in Dawn's life begin to
grow larger and more out-of-control. Her sister is kidnapped and
it seems to be her fault; she catches Steve with another girl,
but instead of leaving him alone, she takes the opportunity to
ask him to join her special back yard club. At some point it feels
like Solondz is inventing bigger and better ways for Dawn to be
miserable, when the truth is, the smaller indignities she suffers
are far more moving.
The real pleasures of this film lie in the details, in the careful
observation of the tone and texture of outcast life. Heather Matarazzo
is astonishing as Dawn Wiener. Despite her young age she handles
her role with sad, serious understatement. She manages to look
about as weary as a 40-year-old housewife lugging groceries up
an endless hill as she shambles through the halls of junior high,
waiting for someone else to make fun of her. Dawn's wardrobe is
perfectly horrifying--mostly flowered dresses, which, though not
exactly out of style, somehow exaggerate her adolescent awkwardness.
She ties back her hair with elastic decorated with huge, plastic
balls. All the other kids wear T-shirts and jeans.
The Wiener nest, a claustrophobic affair decorated with wrought
iron-work, furthers the sense that the world is a trap and Dawn
will never get out. She and her family move through small, darkly
painted rooms, sniping at one another and vying for territory.
Her only retreat is a clubhouse in the back yard, which her mother
tears down for her anniversary party. The whole world seems to
be Dawn's nightmare dollhouse--a tiny, claustrophobic realm arranged
for the pleasure of someone else. When her sister Missy is out
of the room, Dawn takes a hacksaw and begins cutting off the head
of her Barbie, and it's hard to blame her. She may be living in
a dollhouse, but it sure doesn't belong to her.