1995’s Welcome to The Dollhouse is a seriously dark movie.
That really shouldn’t be too surprising. The film was written and directed by Todd Solondz, a filmmaker who goes out of his way to showcase the darkest corners of human existence. For that matter, the film stars Heather Matarazzo. Matarazzo won an Independent Spirit Award for playing Dawn Wiener, a 12 year-old outcast who is nicknamed “Wiener Dog” and essentially spends Welcome to the Dollhouse being tormented by almost everyone in her life. According to Wikipedia, upon winning the award, Matarzzo announced that she hoped to spend her career playing characters “whom are ostracized for some reason.”
And, if nothing else, Dawn is certainly ostracized.
There’s been a lot of movies that have claimed to be about teen outcasts. Whenever you watch those films, one thing you immediately notice is that the “outcasts” rarely seem to truly be outcasts. Instead, they’re often portrayed as artistic types who just need to take off their glasses, let down their hair, and go on a shopping spree. For instance, Rachael Leigh Cook was an outcast in She’s All That but it turned out that all she needed to do was go out on a date with Freddie Prinze, Jr. Sissy Spacek, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Emily Bergl all played outcasts in different versions of Carrie but, fortunately, they could always use their psychic powers to kill all the bullies at their school. Unfortunately, Dawn doesn’t have psychic powers and it’s doubtful that even dating Freddie Prinze, Jr. would help her out.
There’s a scene in Welcome to The Dollhouse in which Dawn witnesses a group of bullies shoving another outcast into a locker. When Dawn steps forward to ask him if he’s okay, her fellow outcast snaps, “Leave me alone, Weiner Dog!” and then runs off. Dawn is the outcast that even the other outcasts make fun of.
The entire film is pretty much told from her point of view. It’s a true journey into the life of an outcast and a chance to see what life looks like when you’re on the outside looking in. We watch as her family ignores her and instead lavishes their attention on her bratty younger sister, Missy (Daria Kalinina). When Missy is briefly kidnapped (largely because Dawn neglected to let Missy know that their mother wouldn’t be able to pick her up after ballet class), Dawn even goes, by herself, to New York City and searches for her. Dawn wants to be the hero of this story but not only does she not find her sister but, when Dawn returns, she discovers that no one even noticed that she was gone.
Dawn does have two friends. One is a fifth grader whose friendship she quickly loses. The other is Brandon (Brendon Sexton III), an angry delinquent who, before becoming her friend, tries to rape her. Brandon, who has a horrific and abusive home life, lights a joint at one point. Dawn tells him that she doesn’t smoke but then earnestly adds that she does think marijuana should be legal.
Dawn does have an older brother named Mark (Matthew Faber). Mark is as nerdy as his sister but he appears to have made peace with it. (Either that or he’s so used to being on the outside that he doesn’t even notice anymore.) Mark assures Dawn that things will get better but it’ll be a few years. He also starts a band, which leads to Dawn getting a huge crush on the lead singer, Steve (Eric Mabius). In fact, Steve is so handsome and charismatic (in a teenage rock star wannabe sort of way) that Dawn doesn’t even realize that, during the rare times that he does talk to her, he’s actually talking down to her…
Welcome to the Dollhouse is one of those films that you watch and you keep waiting for that one moment that Dawn is going to be allowed some sort of victory. You wait for her to get a compliment. You wait for her to make a new friend. You wait for her to smile after coming to some sort of sudden realization. And it never happens. If anything, Dawn is more miserable at the end of the movie than she was at the beginning.
In the end, you realize that her only triumph comes from the fact that she’s managed to survive and she now has a better understanding of just how much life is going to suck. It’s not exactly a happy movie. It gets even worse if you know that Solondz’s 2004 film, Palindromes, opens with Dawn’s funeral. (Dawn, we learn, committed suicide after getting pregnant in college.)
And yet, Welcome to the Dollhouse remains compulsively watchable. Heather Matarazzo does such a good job as Dawn that you find yourself rewatching and hoping things turn out differently. Whenever I watch Welcome to the Dollhouse, I always think to myself that I would have been nice to Dawn if I had known her. Of course, that’s probably not true. No one was nice to Dawn in the movie and no one would probably be nice to her in real life. At the best, if I had gone to school with Dawn Weiner, I probably would have just patted myself on the back for not being mean to her face.
What sets Welcome to the Dollhouse apart from other teen films is that Todd Solondz is willing to admit this.