Usually when coming-of-age films are described as relatable by their biggest fans, there’s a certain extent to which it would also mean the best. Then comes a film like Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, which isn’t any ordinary film about the junior high school experience but one of the most cruel films that you could ever have imagined to be made about that point of your life. When talking about a filmmaker like Todd Solondz, it’s not hard to stray far away from words like “bizarre,” “misanthropic,” or “idiosyncratic,” and his sophomore feature captures every facet of that about him. It’s a film that captures everything that one would absolutely hate about their middle school experience by tapping into the most sensitive areas of your memories of having once undergone that period of your life. The more you feel relieved, you also see someone else suffering something you did, and Welcome to the Dollhouse might make you laugh at one’s own humiliation – to the point you feel bad about it too.
Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) is unpopular, unattractive, but intelligent. She is constantly picked on by a bully named Brandon (Brendan Sexton III), and at home her life is not particularly all that much better – her younger sister Missy (Daria Kalinina) is a manipulative spoiled brat who gets everything that she wants, her older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) is a misogynistic nerd who plays the clarinet in his own band, her parents never listen to her in disputes with other family members. More than vividly I remember having a middle school experience much like Dawn’s, I was never exactly a popular person and my attempts to become more social with other people were often disastrous, and I never had anyone to back me up in a debate either. Parts of Dawn’s experience resonated so greatly with me because they were often too painful to think back to, but Todd Solondz never invites cruelty from his viewers. Even in the film’s darkest moments, the film still remains sympathetic towards Dawn’s stinted understanding of the world thanks to all the bad things that have happened around her, and that’s what wins me over.
Todd Solondz is a filmmaker whom I’ve always had a rocky relationship with, for you can always tell one of his films for their willingness to explore taboo subject matter as if it were something that happens every day. But his brand of misanthropy has more often than not, left me wanting to go further and further away, yet it’s clear that he’s still capable of being sympathetic – even if it may not always come off so easily in his cruelty. But in the moments that we find funniest in Welcome to the Dollhouse, we still find ourselves feeling sorry for Dawn. Even when the humour comes at her expense, it still captures everything that made Dawn’s middle school experience exactly what it was. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable to even look back at these points of our lives too, but Solondz also shows it’s possible even to laugh and shrug off those painful points of our own lives. And even if the film may not be literal reflections of what we’ve experienced in middle school, there’s a beauty to be found in the film’s darkest moments because in the back of our head we all think about how terrible a time it was for us, and Solondz doesn’t ever hold back too.
This is a film all about misunderstandings and the tragic effects that they have upon the way people grow up. Even if Dawn may be the most sympathetic character that Todd Solondz were ever going to write, he doesn’t shy away from her negative actions either especially towards the ending. Yet even in the moments where Dawn starts interacting with Brandon, who has been introduced to us with a clear contempt for her, even threatening her with rape too, looking into Brandon’s living conditions soon explain where his twisted worldview has come from. Dawn’s desperation to become popular would eventually become her greatest downfall, especially when the students themselves are all pressured to believe in what they all feel made to. There’s no space in this world for a person like Dawn and her attempts to try and find people who will admire her only turn out awry, though in a greater scope it’s hard enough to believe that all of his is solely her fault. Solondz has made this film with a clear contempt for the world in which people like her have been made to grow up within, and it also makes reflections to reality even more painful – aided even more so by Heather Matarazzo’s incredible portrayal of Dawn.
If anything else best captures what makes Welcome to the Dollhouse so effective, it’s the way in which it shows you what it feels like to be forgotten. Whether it be in one’s own household, with people who could potentially be your friends, or even when you’re going out trying to make a better life for yourself. Constantly forgotten in her own household because of the narcissism of her family members, seen as little to nothing by her own love interest, and picked on by her own school peers whether they be other students or the teachers, it’s a world where Dawn has no place to grow properly. She tries her best to do good things for the people around her, but the only thing that comes out of it is that it only feeds into the narcissism of the world around her. She wants to try and become her own person, but ultimately there’s no one else interested in learning about whom Dawn really is or what she’s capable of, as reflected in the film’s final shot – where everyone else is happy, but Dawn only finds herself in more pain than ever.
Welcome to the Dollhouse leaves a lasting resonance in one’s mind especially when you constantly think to yourselves about how your time in school was the best, but it’s all a lie that we tell ourselves to feel good about where we are. But even as we leave Welcome to the Dollhouse being relieved that we’re far past this point of our lives, the uncomfortable memories that come back to you in here are being lived by someone else. There’s another Dawn Weiner out there, being ignored by people around her and unable to find her own calling because of that. And as we look at the world through the way Dawn Weiner has seen everything, Todd Solondz invites us to listen to those cries for help. It’s funny without ever mocking its characters, though those aspects also define what makes Welcome to the Dollhouse incredibly tragic too. Beautifully acted and tenderly written and directed through its happiest and darkest moments, Welcome to the Dollhouse is Todd Solondz at his finest. There’s a lot one can relate to in here, but you’re soon wondering if that’s something to really feel happy about too.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Sony Pictures Classics.
Directed by Todd Solondz
Screenplay by Todd Solondz
Produced by Todd Solondz
Starring Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton III, Matthew Faber, Eric Mabius
Release Date: September 10, 1995 (TIFF)
Running Time: 87 minutes