Ultimately, Dawn's biggest problem is that, while her brother has his band and his relentless preparation for college (he'll no doubt get his revenge through a high-paying job in computers), she has no outlet to channel her energy or her rage. One of her few available choices might be to become a slut (modeling herself on one girl who's shown entertaining boys by lying spread-eagled on a car hood), but she's not quite ready for that. Her desire for Steve, hunky lead singer in the garage band, seems to point a way out: She builds a shrine out of his high school ID, presents him with a feast of leftover fishsticks and Hawaiian Punch, and briefly becomes a groupie rocking out to his tunes. But of course, this crush turns sour. In fact, all of Dawn's attempts to empower herself are systematically circumvented. Her one symbol of control--her "Special People" clubhouse shack, deemed "a mess" by her mother--is literally torn down. Near the end of the film, Dawn sees a possible way to get even once and for all, but she gives it up for a chance at becoming Mom's favorite. And that doesn't work either.
The sense of defeat extends beyond the screen. It's possible to see oneself in Dawn Wiener and still find her a difficult character to root for. For one thing, she's not bright enough to note the recurring patterns of cruelty in her situation, or her complicity in them; more than that, she's not expressive enough to cry or complain about it. All she can do is to be cruel in return, to endure rather than transcend. One of her few successes in the film, besides surviving what it throws at her, is finding someone lower on the totem pole whom she can pick on. The closest Solondz comes to offering Dawn some relief is when she smashes a videotape of her parents' anniversary party, which had documented her being pushed into a kiddie pool. Naturally, her younger sister adored the tape ("Let's watch it again!"). It's tempting here to wish Dawn a similar revenge on Welcome to the Dollhouse. On the other hand, maybe her triumph is having a movie of her own, however much it withholds her rewards, or confines her in the name of realism. Too bad a real Dawn Wiener couldn't have grown up to make this indie megahit as her own autobiography--but that's another story.
Welcome to the Dollhouse starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.