Oh, Dawn Wiener.
In the person of Dawn (Heather Matarazzo), Welcome to the Dollhouse presents us with a vision of middle-school angst and awkwardness so cringe-worthy that for much of the film you’ll be tempted to look away. Which, of course, is the tragic irony of early adolescence. At that tender age, your ungainly attempts to establish your own identity tend to push people away, when all you desire is to be understood, to be seen.
With her bright, ballooning pants, big glasses, jumbled teeth, and oddly alert ponytail (she looks like she’s playing hooky from clown school), Dawn is certainly noticed. Her classmates torment her, having universally agreed on the nickname Wiener Dog. Her teachers respond with impatience and exasperation, blaming Dawn for the disruptive bullying directed her way. At home her father is mute, while her mother fawns over her cute and perky little sister. Only her brother (Matthew Faber) seems benign, even if his kindest words to her are, “Duh.” (Having been the older brother of two sisters at this stage of life, I can only marvel at the authenticity of Faber’s performance.)
As for Matarazzo, she unabashedly embraces how girls in middle school can be fierce and fragile at the same time. Dawn is either mumbling too quietly, often to her teachers or parents, or speaking too loudly, especially when she’s frustrated or enthusiastic. (The soundtrack offers little punctuations of music to match her mood.) We can partly understand why adults get frustrated with her. At the same time, Matarazzo gives her an aching vulnerability, as when she squints behind those glasses, as if they’re not really helping all that much. When Dawn rocks out while sitting on the hood of the family car to the terrible music of her brother’s garage band (she has a crush on the lead singer), she cannot fathom how dorky she looks, but rather seems to believe she’s at a raging concert. Dawn is painfully self-conscious, yes, but she doesn’t have the social self-awareness that will come a few years later.
Is Dawn a joke, meant to make us snicker? Writer-director Todd Solondz has come under the same scrutiny as Alexander Payne and the Coen brothers in terms of how their movies “treat” their characters. At least with Welcome to the Dollhouse, I think Solondz gets a pass. Consider a small scene that perhaps best illustrates the film’s sense of humor. At one point Steve (Eric Mabius), Dawn’s crush, is eating a snack in her home. As he grossly gobbles the food in the foreground of the frame, we see an enraptured Dawn in the background, looking at him as if he was not one step up from a snorting pig but rather Michelangelo’s David. Meanwhile, soft violins play on the soundtrack. The scene isn’t making fun of Dawn, or even Steve. Rather, it’s forcing us to have one foot in Dawn’s head while keeping the other in the “real” world. What’s funny is the absurd juxtaposition.
Everything we see in Welcome to the Dollhouse is filtered through Dawn’s heightened perspective. There is one explicit fantasy sequence, but really the whole movie could be taken as a hormonal exaggeration. Solondz and Matarazzo may offer the cringiest middle-school experience imaginable, but that doesn’t make it any less true.