Hell Is For Children

Welcome to the Dollhouse puts an ugly duckling through her paces.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Welcome to the Dollhouse depicts an endless series of horrors endured by one Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), an unpopular seventh-grader from suburban New Jersey. Basically, she's ugly and her mother dresses her funny, as the saying goes. Therefore, an ordinary task like finding a seat in the cafeteria amounts to a torturous experience, made even worse one day when a clique of cheerleaders stops at her table to issue the ultimate insult: "Lesbo!" She's the school's designated pariah. Her locker is covered with name-calling graffiti ("Wienerdog Sucks," "Dogface," "Woof Woof"), and, as if that weren't awful enough, boys shoot spitballs at her during assembly. There's no escape. When Dawn tries to comfort a diminutive boy who's been punched in the gut by a bully for being a "faggot," the boy runs away, feeling shamed even further. When she dares to retaliate against the bully by calling him a "retard," he threatens her with rape and holds a knife to her throat.

Amazingly, Welcome to the Dollhouse has been described as a comedy. But how could it be? To hear writer-director Todd Solondz tell it in the movie's press kit: "The film is a comedy because that is the only way I know how to deal with excruciating torment..." Perhaps so, but let's clarify that a bit. If the film is a comedy, maybe it's because that's the only way some viewers know how to deal with "excruciating torment." In other words, humor is subjective. At the Sundance screening I attended, Solondz introduced his film by announcing that it was OK to laugh. I wish he hadn't. The experience of seeing Dollhouse in a theater full of knee-slappers--egged on, it seemed, by the filmmaker--begged the question of whether the movie was as cruel as Dawn's oppressors. And given the sheer volume of abuse in the film, it was difficult to tell who Solondz was avenging himself on. Writing (or perhaps retaliating) in January, I called Dollhouse "phenomenally mean-spirited" and a "nasty piece of work." Some of us recovering teenage geeks still find it hard to take a joke, I guess.

Since then, I've watched it a couple of times by myself, and can better appreciate its rare attempt to portray the psychological state of an adolescent girl. Divorced from their comic function, the film's more absurdly surreal qualities might be read as a magnification of the disorienting state of growing up female in middle America. Certainly, Dollhouse speaks truths about how girls are harassed and made to obsess about their bodies; like Kids, it urges us to respect teenagers as sexual beings, and suggests that failing to do so has consequences.

But it's still an infuriating movie, and not entirely by design. So obsessed is Solondz with staging oppression-as-spectacle that he thought of calling the film Faggots and Retards. The more implausibly ghoulish authority figures (Dawn's hysterically bitchy mother, a teacher who wears an eyepatch after being hit with a spitball) might mirror the hyperbolic emotions attendant to being age 11, but they make it tougher to take the film seriously.

Maybe Dollhouse can best be summarized as a decent drama but a lousy comedy. Still, however one interprets it, this is a thoroughly original movie. Avoiding the simplistic representations of cuteness or menace in most teen films, Dollhouse is more concerned with accumulating crude, realistic detail; conversations about barfing, shitting, and finger-fucking are given a scene each. (Solondz says he wrote the film partly as a response to the synthetic sweetness of TV's The Wonder Years.) Dawn is never merely an unfortunate victim of middle-child syndrome: She's clumsy, uncharismatic, and in no way adorable. And as much as she's made sympathetic, the way she deals with misery hardly lets her off the hook: Her preoccupation with revenge threatens to turn her into one of her own enemies.

Which is frustrating--I kept wanting Dawn to discover a more, well, constructive approach to her pain. As it is, Dollhouse is a truly fierce piece of anti-nostalgia--too much so, at times, especially for those who like their nihilism to shed some light or point a way out.

With scenes of Dawn's younger sister flitting about the front yard in a tutu, while her older brother's geeky garage band squeaks out a version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (an apt cover, to be sure), sitcom silliness abounds--but this is no John Hughes movie. Nor is it Carrie: While Solondz flaunts his teen grotesqueries in much the same way De Palma did in that film, there's no cathartic revenge here, despite Dawn's repeated attempts. Everything she does to retaliate--calling her sister a "lesbo," tattling on the bully for copying her test paper, returning spitball fire--only leads to more punishment, more humiliation.

Despite a certain "realism" here, it's important to remember that it's Solondz who's pulling the strings. The aforementioned rape threat might well have been a devastating event, although in the director's universe, it's interrupted by the fortunate appearance of a janitor. It's clear that the bully has some anger of his own that needs venting, but at some point hate turns to affection as he and Dawn begin a friendship. Although this turn of events is probably just as puzzling to the participants, it's unduly disturbing that a relationship premised on the threat of rape would turn out to be the only positive one in the film.

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.

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