Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, December 15, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (1995)

2. Welcome to the Dollhouse

After his experience making “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” completely disillusioned him, Todd Solondz was ready to give up filmmaking. He didn’t make another movie for five years. Until a well-to-do lawyer friend realized Solondz’ talent and offered to put up the money for whatever weird thing he wanted to make. The result of that agreement was “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Solondz’ break-out film, it won acclaim on the festival circuit, was one of Roger Ebert’s top films of the year, launched Heather Matarazzo’s career, and largely predicted the kind of movies the director would make in the future. Though it didn’t launch the director to mainstream recognition, it is one of the iconic success stories of the nineties indie film scene.

The film follows Dawn Wiener, an unfortunately named eleven year old girl entering the seventh grade. Homely, socially awkward, nearly friendless, and unable to dress herself well, Dawn is ruthlessly bullied and mocked by her school mates. She’s the middle child of her family, between her nerdy older brother and her spoiled younger sister. Her micro-managing parents mostly ignore her, when they’re not actively punishing her. Dawn harbors an impossible crush on her older brother’s hunky friend. While that doesn’t go anywhere, she instead is pursued by one of her bullies, a would-be drug-dealer who comes from an even more dysfunctional home then Dawn's. On the edge of adolescence and trapped in a life that makes her deeply unhappy, Dawn attempts to rebel and find something more for herself.

The most valuable thing about “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is its unflinchingly honest portrayal of bullying and the effects it has on the teenage psyche. The film begins with one of the most terrifying sights any middle-schooler could ever be faced with: A crowded lunch room with no friendly tables in sight. Dawn attempts to find a place to sit and is rejected each time. She eventually sits down next to a girl that might be equally weird. A group of cheerleaders call Dawn gay and the other girl at the table joins in on the name-calling. Her classmates have nicknamed Dawn “Wiener-Dog” and her locker is covered in similarly themed graffiti. One of the film’s cruelest scenes has a bully cornering Dawn in the bathroom and refusing to let her leave until she’s taken a shit, being watched the whole time. When she attempts to come to the aide of a fellow bullied kid, he calls her name too. People call her a lesbo, a faggot, and a cunt. She faces all of that and more on a daily basis. There’s no relief, no silver-lining, and seemingly no way out. That’s the life Dawn lives and it’s the same life million of kids go through every day in middle school and high school, yours truly included.

Sadly, Dawn’s home life isn’t much better. Everyone around her is self-adsorbed and uninterested in helping Dawn through her problems. Little sister Missy is the apple of her mother’s eyes. Usually seen prancing around in a pink tutu, Missy’s relationship with Dawn is antagonistic, at best. The younger sister is incredibly selfish and usually tattletales on her older sister. The older brother seems utterly ambivalent to Dawn, tolerating her with a quiet contempt. Worst yet, mom and dad do not treat her any better. Dad is a non-entity, kowtowing to the mother. Mom always takes Missy’s side, even when she’s wrong. Her parents’ abuse is most evident during two dinner scenes. In the first, the mother insist Dawn apologize to her little sister for some minor trespass. When Dawn refuses to do so, she’s forced to sit at the table until bed time. The second, far worst moment comes later on. When preparing for their 20th anniversary party, Mom insists Dawn tears down the home-made clubhouse in the backyard, her sole sanctuary. When Dawn refuses, the mother goes ahead and destroys it anyway. To rub it in, everyone at the dinner table that night gets a slice of chocolate cake… Except Dawn.

The universe constantly shits on Dawn. But she’s not flawless. Dawn’s only true friend is a younger kid named Ralphy. Ralphy is even more socially awkward then Dawn, being effeminate and speaking stiltedly. The two are friends, hiding in the club house together, but don’t seem to have much in common. At one point, Dawn pushes Ralphy down, yelling “Faggot!” at him. Later on, after an especially rough day, Ralphy calls Dawn. She yells at the receiver, calling her only friend in the world cruel words and refusing to acknowledge him. In Todd Solondz’ world, nobody is entirely a victim. Dawn suffers cruelty and passes that cruelty on to other people. It’s an all-too-realistic depiction of how young people struggle with and adsorb the constant punishment of bullying.

As incredibly dark as the film goes, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is a comedy of sorts. Most of the film’s humor comes from Dawn’s incredibly dorky attempts to rebel against her awful life. During a school speech, Dawn is pelted with spit-balls by the bullies behind her. She attempts to fire back her own spitball. Instead, she hits another teacher in the eye, causing the woman to scream loudly. The biggest laugh in the film comes when Dawn, escorted by her disbelieving parents, is starred down by the same teacher, now sporting an eye-patch. (Teachers aren’t much more then bullies in the film. After attempting to hide her test from a cheating classmate, Dawn and the cheater both get throw in detention. Afterwards, the teacher forces her to read an essay about dignity to the class, ironically robbing the girl of her’s.) Dawn’s further attempts at rebellion involve sawing the heads of her little sister’s dolls and seeking out sex advice she doesn’t understand from one of Steve’s ex-girlfriends. It’s awkward and funny if no less brutally honest then the rest of the movie.

Dawn’s infatuation with Steve is another sign of her slowly growing adolescence. The handsome Steve fancies himself a Jim Morrison type, singing sleazily overwrought lyrics in Dawn’s brother’s band. Hilariously, his earnest delivery contrasts badly against the clarinet and tinny synth of the other band members. Steve is a slacker, showing little in interest in school. He’s a horndog too, seemingly sleeping with any semi-attractive girl his age. He’s also the only human being in the film to show any kindness to Dawn. He’s self-adsorbed in a harmless way, sharing his grandiose life plans with an-all-too-willing-to-listen Dawn. She shows her affection for him by making him fishsticks and pouring a glass of Hawaiian Punch. An innocent compliment towards her piano playing is enough to further embolden Dawn’s affection. By the end though, Dawn is made fully aware of Steve’s complete ambivalence towards her. That being said, he’s still probably the nicest guy in the movie.

What motivates the plot more is Dawn’s bizarre relationship with Brandon. At first, he’s just another bully, calling Dawn and Ralphy cruel names and pushing her around. However, Dawn visibly wounds Brandon when she calls him a “retard.” Lashing out at the girl, he threatens to “rape” her. Yet Brandon is too young to truly understand what that word means. Instead, he corners her, puts a tiny pocket knife on her, and plants a gingerly kiss on her face. Dawn is so unaccustomed to any affection, no matter how negative, that she becomes intrigued by Brandon. In what might be the youngest sadomasochistic relationship ever put to screen, Dawn seems aroused and fascinated by Brandon’s repeated threats of rape. The two soon develop something like a normal, pre-teen romance. They bond over their mutual statuses as outsiders. Brandon’s father appears to be an abrasive redneck. He lives in a broken down home. His older brother is mentally disabled, which is why the word “retard” affects him so much. Brandon is as socially awkward as Dawn but slightly better at navigating the middle school system. He figured out that being cruel to others elevates his status just enough to prevent him from being picked on himself. Dawn’s unrealistic preoccupation with Steve breaks up her budding relationship with Brandon. As dysfunctional as it was, the two had something but Dawn is too dorky to realize that.

In its last third, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” introduces a more dramatic device. As an act of petty revenge against her mom and her little sister, Dawn doesn’t tell a neighbor that Missy needs to be picked up from ballet class. This leads to the younger sister being kidnapped. Though it’s inclusion into the story is somewhat awkward, the film makes this plot development work. Now the youngest child in her family, Dawn receives far more attention from her parents. Her mother’s too torn up about Missy’s disappearance to chastise Dawn for anything. Her father, meanwhile, collapses from a stress-induced gallbladder attack. Eventually though, the guilt sets in. Dawn catches a midnight bus ride to New York, putting up missing poster all over the city and asking uninterested city residents if they’ve seen her sister. Falling asleep in the streets, Dawn has a dream that she rescues her sister from an abductor. Instead of her sister’s safety, this fantasy is more preoccupied with everyone in her life praising Dawn and declaring their love for her. Dawn hopelessly desires the adoration that is always just out of reach. Reality contrasts cruelly with her dreams. She wakes up, calls home and discovers that Missy had been found. Her mother was so preoccupied with her little sister’s return that she didn’t even notice Dawn was gone. The geeky young girl has to pay for her own bus fare home.

This final cruel kick in the pants is indicative of “Welcome to the Dollhouse’s” message. Dawn is force to present a speech about her sister’s kidnapping to the whole school. The crowd begins to mock her, chanting “Wiener-Dog!” The teachers don’t respond until she’s reduced to tears. In the film’s final minutes, Dawn asks her older brother if things get any better in the eighth grade. He gravely responds that they don’t and won’t for a long time. Throughout the film, a summer vacation to Disney Land is continuously teased. At the end, Dawn says she doesn’t want to go. Her parents make her go anyway, denying the poor girl even that much control over her own life. The final seconds of the film are devoted to Dawn singing on the bus, her voice singled out among the other kids on the bus. Even when in a crowd, she’s alone.

Telling a story revolving around pre-teen kids obviously meant the director had to cast pre-teen actors in the roles. This was Heather Matarazzo’s feature debut and she’s gone on to have a solid character actress’ career. Matarazzo is unpolished at times, not being entirely able to make all of her dialogue sound convincing. However, that raw quality is probably what was needed. Brenden Sexton Jr., who has gone on to a decent career of his own, made his debut as Brandon. He, too, inhabits the role, not being afraid to play an asshole but clearly projecting the hurt soul inside. Eric Mabius as Steve has enough dumb good looks to make it obvious why a girl like Dawn would crush on him so bad. As solid as the other performances in the film are, this is Matarazzo’s story and she owns it.

Solondz’ first movie, “Fear, Anxiety & Depression,” was almost a musical, punctuating many scenes with upbeat pop music. As much as the director wishes to disown that film, he continued this habit over to “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” (In another unmentioned connection, Jill Wisoff, who played the clueless girlfriend in “Depression,” was the music supervisor for this movie.) Scene transitions are often scored to rowdy, surf-rock style punk music, the interior background music to Dawn’s teenage rebellion. Steve’s rock songs underscores Dawn’s inner feelings and emotion. While Steve sings about obsessing over a random sex doll in the title-lending song, Dawn begins to develop an obsession with him. The music is catchy and upbeat, intentionally contrasting with the sad, depressing lives the characters live. It’s a sarcastic trick the director has utilized over and over.

You might be tempted to call “Welcome to the Dollhouse” “misery porn.” There’s no doubt that the film trades in alienation and depression. However, Todd Solondz’ films resist that label with their brutal honesty and genuine sympathy for their lost, confused, broken protagonists. The film is a story that needs to be told. Many viewers will see themselves in poor, sad Dawn Wiener. The film is powerful, heartbreaking, and at times hilarious. If you’ve checked out by now, you can already tell Solondz isn’t for you. If you’re swept up, fascinated, and especially if you relate, odds are good you’ll follow the director’s career for some time to come. [Grade: A-]

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