Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Welcome to the dollhouse (1995)

Directed by Todd Solonz
Starring Weiner Dog, Brendon Sexton III
Rated R

"Your club is for retards."

Todd Solonz is a misanthropic freak of a filmmaker known for bleak, pitiless, pitch-black anti-comedies like Happiness (AKA the child molester movie) and Palindromes (AKA the one with the piles of bloody abortions). He lives to bum you out, and he’s fairly amazing at it. Welcome to the Dollhouse was only his second film – after the rarely seen (and fittingly titled) Fear, Anxiety and Depression – but all the elements that made him infamous are already there: casual cruelty, a conflicted, put-upon protagonist, and the constant, nagging reminder that humans, for the most part, are awful creatures. It’s also pretty funny. I mean, the laughs are pretty queasy, but its got ‘em, nonetheless.

Nobody likes Dawn Weiner, AKA "Weiner Dog" (Heather Matarazzo).

Even the kids at the loser table in the cafeteria are reluctant to let her sit with them. The cheerleaders chant 'lesbo' at her.

Her locker is splattered with mean-spirited graffiti.

Her little sister Missy (Daria Kalinina)  is a snotty wannaba ballerina, and her big brother Mark (Matthew Faber) is in the worst garage band in the world.

Even worse, she's stuck in a hate-hate circle with class bully Brandon (Brenden Sexton III) and his butchy girlfriend Lolita (Victoria Davis).

The point is, It ain't easy being the weinerdog.

Luckily, she's got the “Special People's Club”. So far, it's only her and some wimpy kid named Ralph, and mostly they talk about how Dawn hate her little sister, but it's a start.

One day, while sawing the head off her sister's pink-haired Barbie doll, Dawn hears a strange sound: music, coming from the garage. Music, instead of horrible noise? Turns out her brother recruited some older kid, Steve (Eric Mabius), into his band, and now they sound pretty awesome. Also, he's dreamy. Dawn is smitten.

The next day, during an assembly about getting kidnapped, Dawn gets into a spitball fight with some bullies, accidentally hits a teacher in the eye, and ends up in the principal's office.She explains that she was only fighting back. Her horrified mother gasps. "When have we ever taught you to fight back?"

That night, Dawn briefly bonds with Steve over their mutual loathing of school, but Mark quickly shoos her out of there.

Later that night, Dawn talks to Mark about Steve. He tells her Steve's so horny he'll have have sex with just about anybody. Dawn checks this theory out with one of Steve's old flames, a middle-school hussy named Ginger. Ginger assures her she's too ugly for the gig.

Undaunted, Dawn attempts to seduce him the next day with fish sticks and Hawaiian Punch and her sad-ass piano playing. It does not work, so Dawn makes a Steve shrine and starts praying to it.

The band come up with a sweet new jam - "Welcome to the Dollhouse", naturally  - and Dawn loves it.
Here's the problem, though. Mark's a dick, so Steve quits the band, and now Dawn has no access to her dream-lover. Even worse, Brandon gives her some very bad news.

He tells her he's going to rape her after school. Yikes. Three O'clock rolls around and Brandon corners Dawn outside of school. Luckily the janitor shows up and Dawn makes it home with her virginity intact. So that's good.

Her luck runs out almost immediately. Mom wants to tear down her Special People's Club clubhouse. Also, Brandon calls her up and tells her he's just going to rape her tomorrow.

They meet the next day for the rape, which is not usually how these things go. He takes her off to some dump under a bridge and they talk about, you know, current events.
"I think marijuana should be legalized," says Dawn.
"Why do you always have to be such a cunt?" Replies Brandon.

Anyway, Brandon decides not to rape her. She seems a little let down by his decision.
Then she goes home and everyone has chocolate cake except for her, because she refuses to tear down her clubhouse. And then mom tells her brother and sister they're just gonna have to tear it down without her.
Well, at least Steve agrees to reunite with Mark's band for one day – and a substantial fee - to play Dawn's parents' anniversary party. So there's hope yet for romance.

Eventually, the anniversary party happens! Dawn dresses up in her sexiest outfit and makes her move. She finds Steve in the garage, kanoodling with some willowy blonde. Panicking, she asks Steve to join the Special People's Club. Steve informs her of what "special people" is a popular metaphor for. And then he goes back to necking with the hussy.

So, that didn't go so well. And then Steve moves to New York to be the “next Jim Morrison”. And then the family sits down to watch a videotape of Dawn's sister pushing her into the pool. And then they all laugh. And then they watch it again.

Later that night,  Dawn gets up, skulks around in her PJs, and smashes the tape. She also thinks about killing her sister with a hammer, but changes her mind. She does sorta-kinda cause her to get kidnapped the next day, though. Suddenly, the house is full of cops and detectives and local reporters.  Dawn's got the day off, thanks to the kidnapping, so she goes over to see Brandon, who was recently expelled from school for drugs. Brandon's dad thinks she's there because Brandon got her pregnant.Ha!

Dawn goes to Brandon's room and asks him to be her boyfriend. He tells her it's too late, he's leaving for New York. And then they make out a little. And then he tells her he's innocent, and escapes out the window. There goes Dawn's second, and even less likely, chance at romance.

Feeling guilty about her sister and bummed out about Brandon, Dawn hops a greyhound bus to New York and starts passing out missing-person fliers.

That goes nowhere, but then she calls Mark, and he tells her they found Missy. She was in their neighbor's secret dungeon!

No one really even notices Dawn was missing, so she just comes home.

And then she goes to Disneyworld, and has a lousy time. The end.

As painful as it is, this is still Todd Solonz’s most accessible film, probably because it’s so relatable. As much as we squirm watching Dawn hobble through her miserable existence, most of us have suffered and survived similar - and sometimes even worse - indignities during our formative years. Adolescence is a particularly ferocious slice of hell that lingers for a lot longer than it should, and Welcome to the Dollhouse is one of the most authentic portrayals of those agonizing years ever. It’s like staring into a gruesome, inky black abyss that we’ve all been lucky enough to escape from. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent in their deadpan portrayals of everyday-evil, and Heather Matarazzo gives a career-making performance as our hopeless, helpless, heroine, a pitiful creature that is nearly as nasty as her tormentors, but one whose fathomless pluck and seething rage carries her through her darkest moments. We know she’ll be ok because we know we ended up ok, and that’s really Solondz’s triumph here: Dollhouse is more than just a catalog of cruelty. It’s a celebration of the glories of adulthood. We might have bills to pay and a few aches and pains, but at least we’re not getting bullied by cheerleaders or forced to tear our clubhouses down.

Fuck childhood, man.

- Ken McIntyre

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