Welcome to the Dollhouse

Tucson Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Todd Solondz

REVIEWED: 06-27-96

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.

Image 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.

--Stacey Richter

Capsule Reviews
Welcome to the Dollhouse
Welcome to the Dollhouse

Other Films by Todd Solondz
Happiness

Film Vault Suggested Links
Not a Love Song
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Head Above Water

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