The movie begins with that horrid moment familiar to many, with Dawn making the long walk through the junior high cafeteria, trying to find a seat. The other girls tease her and call her a lesbian. Her locker is covered with obscene graffiti. Even when Dawn tries to rescue a smaller boy from some bullies, the boy shouts, “Get away from me, Wiener Dog!” It’s the sort of cruelty that seems exaggerated for the movies, but is actually spot on. Kids are monsters.
Dawn is played by Heather Matarazzo, an actress who has worked regularly but has never owned the screen the way she does here. In Welcome to the Dollhouse she’s at the awkward stage where her teeth seem too big for her head. Dawn still wears pajamas with clowns on them, but her small dark eyes are filled with hate and pain. There’s something boiling in her, and we don’t know if it will be good or bad.
School life is miserable, and her home life is not much better. Her older brother is the sort of nerdy kid who is the star of the family just because he was the first born. He plays clarinet and is starting a band, not because he loves music, but so he’ll have something for his college resume. Dawn’s little sister is the adorable one, permanently wearing her pink leotard and leaping around the front yard like a deer. Dawn is hopelessly stuck in the middle. When the kids at school call her a “lesbo,” she comes home and calls her little sister a lesbo. That’s how hate it works. It’s passed on like a germ.
Dawn’s life changes when her brother hires a hunky high school senior named Steve (Eric Mabius) to sing in his band. Steve is the sort of boy who seems to exist in all high schools. Compared to the rest of us, still squeezing our zits and wearing the clothes our mom bought for us at Sears, he’s already an adult, looking and dressing like Jim Morrison. Dawn loves him at first sight.
I’ve probably seen this movie six or seven times. It never fails. Dawn is always riveting. We never quite feel sorry for her, because Solondz makes her as dim and vicious as the people who abuse her. At one point she asks a female classmate, “Why do you hate me?” The simple response: “Because you’re ugly.” This is the world of seventh graders. What else can Dawn do but hunker down and prepare for a long battle in the trenches of childhood?
Solondz’ films are loaded with misfits like Dawn, and if my description of the movie has left you cold, then I’m failing. Though I’ve found things to praise in his other films, none have had the lasting impact on me of Welcome to the Dollhouse. Solondz’ camera work is simple, almost flat, which allows the dialogue to hit even harder. “Is high school better than junior high?” Dawn asks her brother. Not really, he says. People are still hateful, but not to your face. Mark, as played by Matthew Faber, has paid his dues. With his clarinet and his college plans, he has come out the other side of junior high school, slightly battered, but wise.
I suspect Dawn is special to Solondz. He’s brought her back in his other movies, played by different actresses, and in one film she supposedly died. Yet, it’s been announced that he has a new film coming out soon, Wiener- Dog, with Greta Gerwig in the role of “Dawn Wiener.” Is it the same Dawn from this movie? Or just the same name? Solondz is perverse that way.
I’m sure Wiener-Dog will feature the same elements that Solondz has been mining since Welcome to the Dollhouse, with his misfits and loners elbowing for position in a cruel, unforgiving landscape, but I fear it may also continue in the vein of his recent films, which have grown increasingly odd in presentation. It’s not enough that he challenge us with his characters; he also has to challenge us with his storytelling techniques, which don’t always work. I prefer Welcome to the Dollhouse because it shows us these outsider characters and, rather than ask us to sympathize with them, simply shows them enduring.
One of Dawn’s enemies is a punkish kid named Brandon (Brendon Sexton Jr) who challenges her, as if to a fight, to meet him after school to be raped. She agrees, not sure what to expect, but determined to not be called a coward. Nothing happens, but Dawn and Brandon develop an unexpected friendship. He’s a loner, too, perhaps even more reviled in school than Dawn. He’d like Dawn to be his girlfriend, but her heart belongs to Steve.
The scenes between Dawn and Steve are exquisite. She fawns over him, feeds him fish sticks and Hawaiian Punch, and even builds a shrine to him in her bedroom. “You will love me,” she chants. He’s accustomed to women liking him, so he tolerates her, which fuels her fire. Even when one of Steve’s ex-girlfriends tells her she doesn’t stand a chance, Dawn plows ahead, fish sticks at the ready.
Dawn is eventually abandoned by both Brandon and Steve – Steve quits school to become a rock star, while Brandon runs away to avoid reform school - and finds herself in an unforeseen family drama when her sister is kidnapped. She tries to make herself useful by going to New York where the little girl’s discarded tutu is found, but before Dawn can become a hero she learns that her sister has returned home safely. Now it’s Dawn is who is far away from home, but no one appears worried about her.
“Some people will of course accuse me of misanthropy and cynicism,” Solondz once said. “I can't celebrate humanity but I'm not out to indict it either. I just want to expose certain truths.”
I’m not sure what truths are exposed in Welcome to the Dollhouse. But after watching it recently, the message seems to be that cruelty is out there, in the air, and it’s to be suffered, like a head cold. Some people are more likely to attract it than others. What makes Dawn so intriguing is that she’ll stand up against it, not so much to win, but simply to live. She’ll cope, even if it entails her being mean to others, just to get some ground back. She’s not smart, nor particularly sensitive. She’s simply blessed with a crude survival instinct. By the end, Dawn has found a niche as a member of her school’s singing club. We see her on a bus, singing along with other kids. Solondz isolates her voice so we hear it above the others; it is dissonant, but it’s hers, fighting to be heard.