Dawn Wiener has not been blessed in life; her older brother Mark is smarter than her, playing in a garage band and coaching others in computer science, her younger sister Missy is the favourite, doing nothing but dancing in the garden in her pink leotard and tutu, while in the seventh grade Dawn is probably the most unpopular girl at Benjamin Franklin Junior High, her locker conspicuously the only one adorned with copious graffiti among which “Dogface” and “Wiener-Dog” are the kindest comments.
Her parents Marv and Marj indifferent to her struggles and her teacher favouring humiliation and blanket punishment rather than good practice when she reports that the class bully Brandon McCarthy is copying her work, the only spark of joy in Dawn’s miserable life is Steve Rodgers, handsome singer in her brother’s band, the only one who doesn’t belittle or ignore her, an eleven-and-a-half year old outcast who is stubborn as all hell.
The second feature of writer and director Todd Solondz following six years after his frustrating experience with Fear, Anxiety & Depression, it was in 1995 that his breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse was released, set in his home state of New Jersey and marking the professional film debuts of Queer for Fear’s Heather Matarazzo, Shelby Oaks’ Brendan Sexton and Outcasts’ Eric Mabius as Dawn, Brandon and Steve.
From the awkward artificially posed fake perfection of the family portrait which opens the film through the monstrous high school cafeteria and classroom interactions and pool parties to which only the popular are invited and the desperate lengths to which Dawn will go in order to achieve that recognition, without guidance or direction she unconsciously accepts that any attention no matter how degrading or hurtful is a relief from sitting alone in her “special people” clubhouse which her parents want to knock down for their anniversary celebrations.
Solondz’s misanthropic chronicle of deeply felt personal discomfort akin to but never as outrageous as that of early John Waters, his characters are not intrinsically terrible people or irredeemable; if Dawn treats Missy badly it is because she is repeating what she has experienced herself and been conditioned to accept as normal, and even the constant taunts and threats of violence from Brandon are a cover for his need to connect and communicate, his own home life revealed to be far worse than the relative paradise of Dawn’s middle class suburban existence.
The substitution of popularity and fleeting celebrity for self-worth a theme revisited by Solondz in Storytelling and many of the characters appearing in his later films Palindromes, Wiener-Dog and Life During Wartime as their little tragedies unfold, the wellspring of those tangled tales is Welcome to the Dollhouse, Radiance’s Blu-ray edition exploring that crossroads in newly recorded interviews with Solondz and Matarazzo, a visual essay by critic Hannah Strong and an audio commentary by B J and Harmony Colangelo.