Brendan Sexton III
1 Hr., 27 Mins.
Welcome to the Dollhouse August 22, 2019
awn Wiener (an excellent Heather Matarazzo), an unpopular seventh grader, doesn’t know what to do. She’s standing at the front of the cafeteria, shakily holding her lunch on a tray. She’s wearing an old-ladyish, magenta-pink shirt and a floral-patterned skirt that looks like a table cloth. Her hair is pulled into a tight ponytail by one of those hair ties that has little shiny balls attached to it. (This particular pair is white.)
Her big, clear frames cover searching eyes. Where is Dawn, friendless and vehemently disliked by her peers, going to sit? She finally lands on a seat across from a girl who greets her with glaring eyes and a monotone hello. The latter, of course, soon spoils Dawn’s ease. “Someone barfed there fourth period,” she nonchalantly says.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), the writer and director Todd Solondz’s second film, ebbs and flows like this. Dawn, its heroine, will get her hopes up about something (usually a something we know won’t pan out from the get-go) only to have everything crushingly dashed. We’d like to think that things will eventually work out for her, as we suspect it will for the protagonists of many a coming-of-age movie, especially ones leading features like Eighth Grade (2018), Bo Burnham’s acutely awkward middle-school saga. But the problem is that Dawn is not so nice a person herself (though, then again, how many of us have said and done awful things as miserable 12-and-a-half-year-olds?) and that, in the movie’s sequel, Palindromes (2004), which I haven’t seen, something happens to her that tells us definitively that things will not be all right.
Dawn’s situation, whether we’ve experienced it ourselves, is one we’re quick to recognize, and, if not, easily able to register as more than a little plausible. At school, Dawn is almost giddily bullied. Mostly because of her easy-to-mock surname, gauche fashion sense, and easy irritability, kids refuse to have anything to do with her. They shoot spitballs, chuck misguided homophobic slurs at her. One girl matter-of-factly tells her that the reason why she “hates” Dawn is that she’s “ugly.” Things aren’t much better at home. Dawn's dad is so impassive that he might as well be a deadbeat one. And since Dad is essentially a specter, that leaves her mom, who acts like the family’s youngest, a Machiavellian elementary-schooler named Missy (Daria Kalinia), who bounces around the house in a princess-y ballerina outfit, is the only kid who matters. Dawn is the pest who bothers Missy. The Wieners’ oldest, Mark (Mattthew Faber), is a dorky wannabe academic with a garage band who will be just fine, so why worry about him? No matter where she is, Dawn is scoffed at and undervalued. Naturally, she lashes out. She does things like torment Missy’s Barbies or call her only friend, the diffident Ralphy (Dimiti DeFresco), a “faggot" just like all the other kids do when he simply tries helping her in a tough spot in one scene.
Two boys provide Dawn with ill-judged optimism. One is Brandon (Brendan Sexton III), a classmate who also happens to be among the school’s premier tormentors. The other is Steve (Eric Mabius), the frontman of Mark’s band. Brandon, who always has a little cut near his eyebrow and who reminds me of a baby Marlon Brando, takes what seems like a random interest in Dawn. One day in class he informs her that he’s going to “rape her” after school. That fails. Then he fails again when he tries it a second time. Then, eventually, he and Dawn are in something of a relationship. In a touching, brief scene, they reveal truths about themselves to each other under the awning of Dawn’s backyard fort, which she’s deemed the headquarters of her “Special People Club.”
When Brandon tells Dawn that he loves her, though, she has to be honest. “I’m in love with somebody else,” she says frantically. That somebody else is Steve, whom she has no chance with. Steve, long-haired, sinewy, and tan, is the type of 17-year-old who probably started looking and acting like an older character in Rumble Fish (1983) when he was 12. He already has an active sex life. He reminded me less of Ralph Macchio and more of Jon Bon Jovi. Dawn thinks she has a chance with him because her brother tells her that Steve will take a romantic interest in any girl who will go “all the way." Dawn will go all the way if she has to. Even though one of Steve’s old paramours tells Dawn that there’s no way he would ever be taken with her — which has already been indicated by Steve, who’s for the most part nice to Dawn but more often seems to view her as a pest, like everyone else — she isn’t ready to give up anytime soon.
Welcome to the Dollhouse, which Solondz originally wanted to call Faggots and Retards in a provocative attempt to mimic the language Dawn encounters on the daily, is episodic — a characteristic that allows it to stay away from something as easy, and unrealistic for a middle-schooler, as a happy ending. There is no rise-and-fall structure on which the storyline builds; it instead watches Dawn navigate a series of unfortunate events in which she’s both aggressively sad and still unequipped to understand them for what they are. This might make the movie sound relentlessly wrenching on paper. But Solondz has fashioned a great cinematic Bildungsroman. He has captured exactly what it feels like, when you’re 12 and a half, to be so intensely uncomfortable in your skin that you wish you could tear it off like tissue paper. He also understands the cyclical, near-absurd nature of juvenile bullying, how almost-humorously poor our logic is at that age, and what even the smallest-seeming of micro-aggressions enacted by family members can do after they’ve been put up with for an x number of years. All of these characters have shaky ethics; most might even be called detestable. But Solondz, who seems to equal parts love them and despise them, wonders if it’s possible to feel sympathy for even the least sympathetic.
The movie is also persistently funny. Solondz imbues Dawn’s misery with comedy that’s difficult to get right: the type where you’re laughing because you can identify with what’s going on, because you know that what’s taking place is possibly the worst version of that scene, because you’re so antsy in your chair that you don’t know what else to do. Even seemingly trivial tableaux leave an impression: the early image of Dawn in the cafeteria; the sight of Mark’s band badly playing a clarinet-assisted cover of “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction” while Missy twirls around the front yard in her ballerina outfit; when Dawn, at an assembly, tries to make it through a speech she doesn’t want to give but is of course loudly heckled, with teachers doing little to intervene. Sometimes we wish we could break through the screen to assure Dawn that everything is going to be better someday. But Solondz, refreshingly though depressingly, is a filmmaker who dares to hold us back. There’s also a scene where this sort of thing happens — Dawn asks Mark what it’s like to be in high school — and his answer speaks for itself. A