Todd Solondz, a NYU film school grad like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, signed a three-picture deal with Fox and an additional three-picture deal with Columbia following his highly successful thesis short, Schatt’s Last Shot (1985). A few years later, he made his first feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989), an ill-conceived comedy in which Solondz plays a young Woody Allen-like misfit, on a budget of a million dollars. The film was a flop and the experience so traumatic and unsatisfying that it caused Solondz to drop out of filmmaking for several years. The script for his second directorial effort, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), was written initially in 1989, but only shot years later as an independent production after a friend helped raise the financing. A suburban drama that captures the humiliation and abuse endemic to early adolescence, Welcome to the Dollhouse won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. The film grossed $5 million domestically when it was released commercially by Sony Pictures Classics, turning Solondz into one of the hottest young American independent directors.
Welcome to the Dollhouse tells the story of twelve-year-old Dawn Wiener, aka “Wienerdog,” (Heather Matarazzo) the most hated girl in middle school. At school she’s tormented by the other students, while her home life as the middle child is not much better. Her older brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), is the consummate high-school computer nerd, obsessed with padding his college resume and having a successful music band. Dawn’s eight-year-old younger sister, Missy, a prancing ballerina in a pink leotard and tutu, has already pirouetted her way to being her parents’ doted-upon favorite. Dawn falls in love with Steve Rodgers, the handsome heart-throb who briefly becomes the lead singer in her brother’s garage band. But Dawn’s plans to seduce him fall hopelessly short, and also complicate her relationship with Brandon McCarthy (Brendan Sexton), a trouble-making classmate with violent rape fantasies. In the midst of Dawn’s awkward attempts to experience sex, Missy gets kidnapped by a neighbor, who turns out to be a pedophile. The family barely notices when Dawn runs away to New York City, especially once Missy is returned, unharmed. As lead Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote at the time of the film’s release, Welcome to the Dollhouse is “the funniest, bleakest view of suburban adolescence ever produced in this country.”
Welcome to the Dollhouse is, first of all, a very short film, even for a comedy. The published script contains a mere 83 pages. Dawn, who desperately wants to be popular, is the film’s clear protagonist. The first turning point (26 minutes) occurs when she decides she wants to have sex with Steve. Like her brother’s calculated efforts to have Steve front his band, Dawn believes that sex with the horny Steve will increase her popularity, a plan she develops while talking about him with Mark. After Steve tells Dawn that her club is for retards, this basically puts an end to Dawn’s fantasy.
Dawn’s decision not to give Missy her mother’s message, which leads to Missy being kidnapped by Mr. Kasdan, serves as the second turning point. This happens at 66 minutes. In between, Dawn smashes the videotape of the anniversary party, which includes humiliating footage of Missy knocking Dawn into the kiddie pool, and the police remove Brandon from school. The final act largely concerns Dawn’s attempt to run off to New York and her desperate bid to become loved by her parents and everyone else. It culminates in her “thank you” speech to the school assembly, where Dawn manages to get through it, despite being heckled by the other students. Her consolation is the advice Mark gives her about junior high school: “All of junior high school sucks. High school’s better; it’s closer to college. They’ll call you names, but not as much to your face.” If this act segmentation is accurate, this breaks the 84 minute film into a first act of 26 minutes, a second act of 40 minutes, and a short third act of 18 minutes.
What is unusual about Welcome to the Dollhouse is not its structure but its unusually dark tone. Like suburbia itself, the film’s conventional structure masks a more subversive element, which involves its depiction of very taboo subject matter. That Welcome to the Dollhouse’s most tender moment should be initiated by Brandon’s rape attempt at knife point serves as one of the film’s major ironies. Welcome to the Dollhouse presents the same skewed view of youth and their dysfunctional world as River’s Edge (1987), only the setting has switched to middle school and the New Jersey suburbs. Despite a strong comedic element, Welcome to the Dollhouse is also disturbing, even though it contains no graphic sex, violence, or nudity. At the heart of the film is twelve-year-old Dawn’s obsessive desire to have sex with the handsome, sexually-experienced lead singer of her brother’s band — an idea that gets reinforced by pedophilic content of the songs Steve sings. The very first time Dawn hears Steve practice with Mark’s garage band, he sings “Sweet Candy,” with the lyrics: “I’m taking candy from my baby/ Sweet candy from my baby/ I know you’re daddy’s girl but it don’t worry me/ Won’t you give me some sweet candy.” The title of the film comes from another song Mark’s band plays, which has similar overtones.
Solondz presents pedophilia as the suburban norm. It is certainly an element in Mr. and Mrs. Wiener’s doting fixation on their dancing ballerina youngest daughter, Missy, as well as shared by their married neighbor, Mr. Kasdan, who dances happily with Missy on his shoulders at the anniversary party, only to kidnap her later and hold her in an underground room. Mary Ellen Moriarty, a fifteen-year-old student, gives a testimonial to the school assembly about how her life was ruined by innocently talking to a handsome older stranger. And Ginger Friedman, Dawn’s precocious classmate, who’s already been sexually involved with Steve, now makes out with twenty-year-old biker types on parked cars. Even Mark composes songs about incest and pedophilia for his band.
In the absence of any sort of sane parental guidance, Welcome to the Dollhouse shows that kids manage to create their own world. They invent a whole language based on crude insults, as well as mores based on power and their own confused and distorted sense of sexuality. Even Dawn, the consummate outcast, dishes out her own share of abuse whenever she can. Like the abused Troy in one of the early scenes in the film, Dawn spews the same name-calling insults to those who are weaker, especially her sister, Missy, and her only real friend, Ralphy, for whom she seems to reserve the greatest contempt. The film shows the intimate workings of this early adolescent world where brief moments of tenderness or compassion are merely setups for even greater cruelty.
Dawn Wiener’s fate is largely determined by her phallic last name. No matter what she does, she will never be able to live it down. As long as she’s an adolescent, she will be plagued by this penile association. As the middle child in the Wiener family, birth order and genetics have also largely determined her fate. She is not smart like her older brother, Mark, nor does she share the good looks that will save Missy. Dawn spends the entire film trying to understand the secret behind “popular.” But no matter what she does, acceptance and popularity somehow manage to elude her.
Dawn literally doesn’t have a clue as to what constitutes appropriate behavior. This is perfectly understandable given the conflicted messages she receives not only from peers, but from her parents and teachers as well. When Dawn sticks up for the downtrodden Troy, he immediately turns on her in order to avoid further stigma. When Dawn complains about Brandon copying her test, Mrs. Grissom arbitrarily punishes both of them. The teacher also berates Dawn for being an undignified “grade grubber.” The situation at home is not much better. Dawn calls Missy a “lesbo” for bothering her during dinner, which results in Dawn being punished for not apologizing and telling her sister that she loves her. Dawn also gets punished later for refusing to tear down her Special People’s Clubhouse. Her parents withhold her dessert as punishment, which takes on a sadistic quality when they allow Mark and Missy to split Dawn’s piece of chocolate cake and eat it right in front of her.
Dawn’s reaction is to mimic the behavior she sees and hears around her. She calls Missy a “lesbo” because that is what Brandon has called her. She calls Ralphy a “faggot” when she’s angry because that’s what she heard Brandon call him. But she blurts out other inappropriate remarks as well. For instance, in one of the rape scenes with Brandon, he asks her whether she wants to smoke. She answers, “No. I just don’t feel like it. But I think marijuana should be legalized.” The fact that Dawn expresses an opinion about the legalization of marijuana in this context is, of course, ludicrous. Perhaps she blurts it out due to fear and nervousness, but whatever the case, her inappropriate remark provokes Brandon to call her a “cunt.” Dawn’s reply – “I don’t mean to be a cunt” – is both funny as well as painfully sad in its naiveté.
Mark, on the other hand, believes he has everything all figured it out. Being a nerd at least allows him to cope, which is more than it is possible to say about Dawn. Mark’s rigidity has allowed him to reduce the complexity of the world to a simple formula. He’s become adept at computers and maintains the single focus of trying to get into the best college. Mark sees things only in terms of his college resume. The truth of the matter is that he’s actually not much more socially adept than Dawn — at least based on his interactions with Steve and his girlfriend, Naomi. When Dawn asks him if he ever thinks about girls, he has a pat answer: “What, are you kidding? I want to get into a good school. My future’s, like, important. And besides, none of the girls at school are that pretty anyway.”
The other interesting character in Welcome to the Dollhouse is Brandon McCarthy. When we first encounter Brandon, he and his friends force Troy into admitting he’s a faggot. Brandon has become the class bully because he’s been left back in school, which is why he tries to copy Dawn’s test answers, even though she’s not a very good student either. Brandon and his friends also pick on Dawn and Ralphy at the convenience store, but Dawn has her own list of insults to return, including calling Brandon a “retard.” This label causes Brandon to threaten to rape Dawn after school. In the rape scene, Brandon actually reveals to Dawn that his brother has a disabilty:
BRANDON: You know I’ve got a brother?
DAWN: No. I never knew that. What grade’s he in?
BRANDON: He’s not in any grade. He’s retarded.
Dawn rises, starts walking over toward Brandon.
DAWN: I’m sorry.
BRANDON: There’s nothing to be sorry about. He’s a tough kid. He could beat you up if he wanted.
DAWN: I’m sorry – I mean . . . yeah.
The word “retard” has a special meaning for Brandon because his personal experience with mental retardation has altered his understanding of this word as an insult. Brandon is also sensitive to being labeled a retard since he’s been left back in school. Brandon freely uses other insulting words, such as “faggot” and “lesbo,” but not “retard.” When Dawn later visits Brandon’s house, she actually meets his brother, Tommy, who offers her a doughnut before being whisked away by Mr. McCarthy. The experience now personalizes the word for her as well.
Brandon’s brother and his impoverished background (which we only glimpse toward the end of the film) allow us to see Brandon’s more sympathetic side. Dawn also sees this aspect of him when she overhears Brandon ask the popular Cookie why he wasn’t invited to her swim party. Cookie’s reasoning is as arbitrary as Mrs. Grissom’s. She tells Brandon that there are an even number of boys and girls, and that this symmetry would be violated if he came. His response is to try to bribe her by giving her his cookie from lunch. But Cookie dismisses his offering: “But Brandon . . . this didn’t even cost anything,” which points to the fact that Brandon’s class background makes him just as much of a social outcast as Dawn.
Solondz’s reliance on black comedy in Welcome to the Dollhouse allows him to create vivid character portraits in a short amount of time. Like the best satiric sketches on Saturday Night Live, Solondz works with certain easily recognizable types, which he pushes to extremes for comedic effect. His characters are highly stylized rather than realistically rendered, recalling the exaggerated quirkiness of Lane and Feck from River’s Edge. But Solondz’s ironic characterizations are much funnier, which provides the cover for him to flip-flop continually between serious emotional drama and total farce.
Solondz’s own strengths as a filmmaker have to do largely with his substantial talents as a screenwriter, especially his knack for being able to create memorable original characters such as Dawn Wienerdog. Solondz’s films privilege script and performance over style, which is hardly surprising for someone who works mainly in comedy. His mischievous sense of deadpan humor restored a strong element of entertainment to an independent tradition that downplayed such narrative pleasure largely because of its tainted associations with commercialism and Hollywood. That a major studio would refuse to distribute his next film, Happiness (1998), only goes to prove that Solondz’s vision still remains, on some very fundamental level, far too troubling to be considered mainstream.