A Review of Welcome to the Dollhouse

No, this is not a documentary of Axl Rose reading Henrik Ibsen plays. This is Todd Solondz first real feature, which dealt with life in junior high school. You remember – that time in which we all experienced such phenomena as kidnapping, rape, neglectful parenting, and sexual humiliation. It’s all part of growing up, right?

I will go ahead and surrender myself – I have only seen one other Todd Solondz film besides this one. That was Palindromes, in which ten different actors play a tween who is obsessed with the idea of becoming a mother by any means necessary.The thing that strikes me most about Solondz is his brutal, unwavering honesty. Most people look at childhood as a care free time in which nothing bad could ever happen. Welcome to the Dollhouse, especially those scenes that take place in the school, should strike a nerve with everyone who went to a public school. The humor of the film (and there is plenty) comes from that sense of recognition. To those who don’t “get” this movie, I say, you were perhaps too busy giving swirlies to freshmen in the boy’s room.

The film stars Heather Matarazzo (who went on to find fame, fortune, and a supporting role in The Princess Diaries) as Dawn Weiner. She is a hopeless nerd, who is called “Weiner Dog” by her peers and ignored by her teacher. Her home life isn’t much better – her mother (Angela Piertropino) cannot stand Dawn or her brother Mark (Matthew Faber) and heaps all her love on the youngest sister Missy. Dawn tries to form a connection withan older guitar player that Mark is trying to teach computer science, but is attracting attention from school bully Brandon (Brandon Sexton) who thinks he may actually love her.

Pretty much the only name you will recognize above is Matarazzo’s. That is not a mistake – this was her break out and it continues to be the character she plays in every single film she’s in (except Hostel II, where her blood did most of the work). There are some parts that just seem to match the actors with a sort of accuracy that cannot be mere coincidence.  This is one of those roles. Matarazzo demonstrates a world-weariness that is caused by being an eternal outsider from her peers. She does not care for them or seems to really care for anyone. This sort of cynicism has been used by other actors and comedians, but here it is presented as an end, rather than a means. Weiner’s world view does not seem to be one she has adopted, but the only logical choice she has left.

The whole film works like that – it almost plays as a documentary. As such, there are moments and characters that most people will respond terribly to. But even then, they are missing the point. Take Brandon, for example. His is a character who is constantly threatening to rape Dawn. There are those who will be disturbed a young kid threatens this, and that Dawn shows up to “accept it.” But do they really understand what that word even means? I doubt it – Brandon probably just overheard it and realized what power the threat had. Nothing that comes close to rape or sex happens between these characters (indeed, Dawn only faces sexual humiliation at the hands of another girl – but it occurs off camera). They are trying to imitate the world of adults that they have been exposed to.

Tweens are like that. The only separation between their speech and the speech of the adults (in both the film and, often times, in real life) is that adults can make their selfish attitudes sound far more noble (listen to Dawn’s mom talk about how Dawn needs to tear down the clubhouse so the parents can hold their anniversary party there). Tweens do not have that capability, and thus their speech becomes far more brutally honest than society would let people get away with. That is, perhaps, why I thought this film was so funny.

Todd Solondz has made his mark by writing films that make Wes Anderson seem like Frank Capra. Most will not want to accept the messages that he wants to give out. But they are important because they are quite applicable to our world – especially in terms of kids being vicious to each other. It’s just a part of their reality, something that does not really change as they grow older. New Jersey just passed a tough anti bullying law that encourages kids to spy on each other and report them to the police. I think the authors of that law should be forced to watch this film. They will realize how surreal their attempts will be.

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