Middle school was hell for me. And don’t try to say that middle school wasn’t hell for you because I know you’re lying. Middle school sucked for everyone, some more than others. When I first saw Welcome to the Dollhouse, I was in the middle of my 7th grade year suffering from that pre-teen awkwardness and trying to figure out what my identity was. While I didn’t suffer as much as Dawn Weiner did, I certainly knew what she was going through.
Todd Solondz’s criticism of middle suburbia is wonderfully dark and satirical. It was funny but incredibly fucked up in his film Happiness, and it isn’t really toned down in Welcome to the Dollhouse, either. The film is centered around Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), an extremely awkward, lonely girl who tries her best to fit in. Her only friend is a much younger boy who is a part of her “special people’s club.” She’s constantly bullied at school with names such as “Weiner Dog” and remarks such as, “At 3:00, I’m going to rape you.” Not even the bullied kids want anything to do with her when she tries to help them.
When her extremely nerdy older brother gets an attractive but dimwitted loser to be the lead singer in his band, Dawn immediately falls for him and tries to act more promiscuous, but ultimately fails to get his attention. Instead, she attracts the attention of Brandon – the one bully who Dawn stands up to by calling him a retard. When Dawn finds out that he was hurt by the comment because he actually has a brother with special needs, they strike up an unlikely friendship. What I love about Solondz is how he takes a movie about adolescence but makes it extremely complex in its characterizations. I love how Solondz has us sympathize with Brandon, a character who appears to be antagonistic, and have us question why we love Dawn, who is deeply flawed and can be incredibly cruel to people.
The scenes that stand out to me from Welcome to the Dollhouse are all the interactions between her and her family. Her mother and father are seen as monsters to the viewer because of the blatant neglect and disregard that they show her. She’s the middle child of an older but intelligent brother and a younger but extremely popular and beautiful sister. Because Dawn is still stuck in her pre-teen rut, she doesn’t have an identity and therefore nothing to show for to her parents. Her parents shower her younger sister with love because of her success as a dancer, and because she has a delightful personality. Even when she gets kidnapped by a neighbor, she gets showered with gifts and unlimited junk food and still lives a better life than Dawn. This is my favorite scene from the film because it’s a little jab from Solondz saying that good looking people will always have the good life.
In later films, Solondz brings back characters from the Weiner family including a funeral for Dawn, who ended up committing suicide. He actually wanted to reprise her role, but Matarazzo didn’t want to continue it, so this was his way of mourning the loss of the actress. However, according to recent sources, he will be bringing Dawn Weiner back in the form of Greta Gerwig. I’m a little bummed because her “ending” was realistic in my eyes with the environment that she was living in, but I have faith in his decision.