Playing this weekend at 5th Avenue Cinema, writer, director Todd Solondz’s 1995 cult classic Welcome to the Dollhouse throws young Dawn Wieners (Heather Matarazzo) into that old familiar void we’ve all had our turn at crawling out of: the black pit of early adolescence. The result is as bleak as it is hilarious.
Spring has come for bespectacled-and-freckled Dawn Wieners, whose unfortunate last name results in her typically cruel classmates bestowing her with such well-crafted titles as “wienerdog” and “lesbo.”
In the hopes high school heartthrob Steve might harbor her love, the middle schooler sets out to discover how she might become appealing to an older boy. After learning from her brother Mark that Steve is quite the promiscuous young man, Dawn awakens to sexuality. A string of salacious conversations and instances both terrifying and sweet take hold of Dawn’s young life. But growing up too fast has its added effects.
On her maiden voyage for a boy’s attention, she becomes hyperaware of how the people that inhabit her world truly feel about her: she’s an outcast, folded in the fringes both at home and at school. Mom prefers her perfect younger sister, Missy. Missy prefers practicing ballet. Older brother Mark prefers studying. Her classmates prefer covering her locker in obscenities and shooting spitballs in her face. She’s forlorn in a world that wants nothing to do with her.
“Why do you hate me?” Dawn asks a bully who corners her in the bathroom.
“Because you’re ugly,” is the response.
On first glance, it might appear that the tale of a seventh grade girl’s coming of age might be one with primarily female audiences in mind. This is not necessarily true. Solondz’s film deals as much with a young woman’s sexual awakening as it does with our standards of beauty and their relation to America’s youth, among other social issues. The film will resonate with anyone who has lived past the age of 13.
Additionally, for a movie comprised almost entirely of child actors, Welcome to the Dollhouse is surprisingly palatable. Not in the least of which is due to Matarazzo’s stunning performance. The role was her debut into film at age 12, for which she won an Independent Spirit Award.
One particularly poignant scene portrays Dawn violently sawing the head off of a Barbie doll. The image alone is powerful and disturbing, carried out by a frustrated young woman constantly ridiculed for her looks. But with the added context that Dawn is mutilating her sister’s dolls as an act of revenge for getting her in trouble, the scene is given a surprisingly comic twist. This example perfectly encapsulates the genius of Solondz’s script: it delivers insightful commentary through an unsettling mix of melodrama and wit.
But as comedic as Dawn’s story is, it never ceases to be tragic. Welcome to the Dollhouse revisits the terrors of childhood days, and offers introspective opportunity as Dawn transforms on the screen.
Like Dawn, we were all sweet at some point. But when did we begin to change our ways? Was it when we were bullied? Was it when we were made to feel inferior, maybe even in our own homes? Or did we simply allow our insecurities to get the best of us? Is it the world we inhabit or the world we’ve invented that causes us to flirt with sociopathy?
Dawn is met with disappointment when she invites a saucy high school freshman, all hair and lipstick, to study with her: a desperate attempt to make a new friend.
“Not a chance,” says the hair. “Sorry, Dawn…look in the mirror.”
And so she does.
5th Avenue Cinema is free for PSU students, $3 for other students, $4 general admission. Visit 5thavenuecinema.org/upcoming-films for showtimes and a full schedule of other films being screened over winter quarter.