In the opening moments of Welcome to the Dollhouse, junior high student Dawn Weiner searches for a place to sit in the cafeteria. This in itself would seem to be a simple act: you set your tray down at an open spot and take a seat. But this is junior high, and Dawn isn't what you'd call "popular." Finding an acceptable table to join is actually a complex ritual involving equal parts of hazing and social Darwinism. It is a test of strength.
As we watch her carefully thread her way through the lunch room, tightly gripping her tray of slop, warily eyeing every person she comes near, our reaction is not entirely one of bemusementit's also one of dread. And that's why Todd Solondz's film is completely unlike every other teen flick made: it dares to tell the truth about the agonies of childhood. Welcome to the Dollhouse isn't so much a "coming of age" movie as a "subsisting in hell" epic.
Typically, teen flicks come in either of two varieties: the zany comedy (Clueless) or the serious drama about Troubled Youth Today (Dangerous Minds). In both cases, no matter how much they might delve into the issues of adolescence they conform to Hollywood's golden rule: everything will turn out fine. Ugly ducklings will blossom into hot babes, shallow socialites will mature into caring nurturers, and homicidal maniacs will lose their anger to become productive members of society. But in reality, the "wonder years" aren't always halcyon days of adventurelosers often remain losers.
Welcome to the Dollhouse not only reminds us of this fact, it also resurrects long-buried memories. Through Dawn Weiner's Coke-bottle glasses we see the horrors of our youth anew. It's both excruciating and hilarious.
The story is simple: Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) tries to survive her adolescence. There are many strikes against her. She does not fit the prevailing definitions of attractiveness. Her last name is "Weiner." Her parents are suburban New Jersey dunderheads who ignore her to heap affection on her perfect younger sister. Her brother is a college-obsessed nerd who only wants a good resume before graduation. The school bullies single her out for daily torture. Her only friend is a pale, skinny grade-school boy next door who gets picked on even more than she.
How does she remain sane? Well, she doesn't entirely. Writer/director Solondz doesn't make the mistake of creating a completely sympathetic character out of Dawn. She lashes out at whomever she can. If, for instance, the "in" girls at school taunt her by calling her a "lesbo," she in turn calls her sister the same name. What's more, she's genuinely geeky, not always really perceiving what's going on around her. There's no sense that she's making real "progress."
Dawn's agony boils down to the fact that no one offers her any sort of affection. She is loveless. But two developments occur. First, she develops a sudden crush on the lead singer in her brother's band, a studly high school underachiever who's an aspiring rock star. Second, one of the school bullies threatens to rape her ("At 3 o'clock. Be there!"). Both create even more pathetic, queasily funny scenes in which Dawn muddles through, learning at least a little bit about human nature.
Matarazzodiscovered in a New Jersey shopping mall by Solondz and his casting directorseems almost to be living the character rather than merely acting. She slumps through her scenes as if perpetually dazed by her own misery. Of course, her wardrobe is almost half the character itself. She's always attired in the most horribly dorky "sport wear," which is seemingly from another era. Her hair is in a permanent pony-tail, stretched back with a center part. Her glasses are as unflattering as design experts can possibly make them.
Solondzwho's only other major movie was the disappointing Fear, Anxiety and Depressionhas accurately dissected the many slights of childhood that can combine to form real emotional damage. And he's managed to do it in a darkly witty fashion (my favorite: watching Dawn fume expressionlessly in her bedroom as the soundtrack thunders an "action rock" score).
Even more, he's conjured a period in people's lives that most of us have forgotten: when you were at the mercy of flawed authority figures who could punish you at their whim; when you had no choice but to allow others to define your identity for you; when you knew that no matter how bad it got, there was no escapethat you had years of school yet to go. And then what?
For the Dawn Weiner in all of us, Welcome to the Dollhouse is highly entertaining nonfiction.