Trigger warning: rape, kidnapping
I’d like to personally thank Todd Solondz for ruining my adolescence. One tragic day in 2003, a friend and I were at a local video store (do those still exist?!) perusing the aisles for scary movies, which were our Friday night weakness. After hours of searching we found a plain black box with a single white label reading “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” We assumed that this was a spooky movie about a possessed doll of sorts, but upon watching the film we were subjected to a horror much more terrifying: junior high.
Welcome to the Dollhouse is a painfully honest coming of age story about an awkward and unpopular suburban middle schooler, Dawn Wiener, played by Heather Matarazzo (hello, Lily from The Princess Diaries). The film is especially difficult to watch, because it magnifies the insecurities that many an adolescent faces. Even watching this film as a 20-year-old, I still get emotionally and physically uncomfortable watching Dawn navigate adolescence. Somehow, this discomfort continues to draw me back to the dollhouse, rewarding my every return with greater appreciation for the minute developmental roadblocks interspersed throughout the traumatic pre-teen wasteland.
The film’s title is ironic in that Dawn is neither welcome in her surroundings, nor cute and doll-like. She is the archetypal middle child of a dysfunctional suburban family, sandwiched between her nerdy high school brother, Mark, and prissy younger sister, Missy. Missy is the societally perfect representation of proper female behavior, which is reinforced by the incredible amount of adoration she receives, much to the chagrin of Dawn who is essentially invisible to her family and her peers. As Missy prances around in her pink ballet outfit with a childlike naiveté, not a care in the world, Dawn is angry and alone.
Dawn does not seem to care for her peers, nor anyone, really. It seems as if apathy is her only logical choice, because it results in the least pain. Dawn’s classmate, Brandon, not only torments and bullies her; he repeatedly threatens to rape her. No matter how many times I watch this film, his threats continue to horrify and disturb me. What’s even more disturbing is that Dawn agrees to meet with Brandon to “accept” being raped. Due to their ages, I don’t think Dawn or Brandon fully understood what rape connotes, but it is clear that they understand the power of the threat.
This film very brashly highlights the struggles of adolescent psychosexual development. In the beginning of the film, Dawn is teased by her fellow classmates who call her a “lesbo.” Another social outcast, Troy, is thrown into a locker while a band of male bullies demand he confess to being a “faggot.” This pre-teen obsession with and degradation of the sexuality of one’s peers causes me to remember my complete and utter lack of security in my body or my sexuality at that age. I recall having lunchroom conversations about how so and so gave what’s his face a handjob last weekend, while I was just wondering when the hell I’d get my period. This adolescent fascination with sex, while totally natural, is strange, because we are uncomfortable with young people having any sexual experiences, which are a part of the adult world that adolescents are meant to merely be spectating.
Dawn is repeatedly told that she’s unattractive and unworthy of love and affection. Kids at school call her “Dogface.” Upon asking a classmate if there was any chance that she could date a highschool boy named Steve, Dawn is told that she’s just not pretty enough. She firmly believes that a relationship will save her from her personal hell. Steve, the object of her affections, has already survived the prison of junior high, so Dawn thinks he will be able to rescue her. She goes as far as to create a shrine devoted to him (a la Helga in Hey Arnold!). At this makeshift altar, she chants, “Steve, hear me. You will fall in love with me. You will make love to me. You will take me away from this place.” I can’t tell you how many adolescents and young adults (myself included) feel that one person, one relationship could change everything. If only I’m pretty enough, cool enough, interesting enough, someone will swoop in and save me, leaving my life filled with sunshine and gumdrops. It’s bullshit.
There is a scene in the film in which one of Dawn’s classmates announces to the class that all those who are attending her birthday party should remember a bathing suit. Dawn, of course, was not invited and is visibly hurt while watching a group of girls giggle as they discuss the party. Do you remember how important birthday parties used to be?! Do you remember when the biggest insult was to tell someone they weren’t invited to your birthday party? That sting was so raw and unmendable. It was as if so many other people were obviously of greater significance than you. I still remember a birthday party in middle school that my entire friend group, aside from me, was invited to. For the next two weeks, the party was all anyone could talk about and it was as if my friends didn’t care that I sat there in silence or asked halfhearted questions as to not seem bitter. Dawn’s frustration and pain in this scene make me want to curl up in the fetal position and stare blankly at my wall while my eyes swell with tears that never fully make it down my cheeks. Solondz, why must you grip my most fragile emotional wounds and press a molten brand into them?
At one point, Dawn’s mother asks her to tear down her clubhouse, which serves as the headquarters for “the special people club.” Her mother wants the clubhouse gone so that there will be more room in the yard for her 20th anniversary party. She obviously does not see the significance in Dawn’s sole safe space and refers to it as ugly, telling Dawn that she’s a “little old for clubhouses.” She wants it torn down merely to make space for dancing and completely disregards Dawn’s attachment to a single space in which she can be herself and be happy with who she is. I totally feel for Dawn, because I remember how fucking awful it was to be forced to give away clothes or toys, trade bedrooms with siblings, or spend time with family friends whom I did not enjoy. I was always so incredibly miserable, but knew that there was nothing to do, but follow orders and wallow silently.
After her parent’s party, Dawn’s family watches footage of the event that consists primarily of cute shots of Missy dancing and a lone shot of Steve playing his clarinet. The video shows only one shot of Dawn in which Missy pushes her into a kiddie pool. Everyone ignores Dawn’s misfortune and fawns over how cute Missy is. This scene hits me in the gut so hard, because I remember feeling like everyone only cared about my little brother and I felt like an ugly, annoying outcast Whenever we’d be with people who were talking about how cute my brother was, I would sit there, fighting back tears and wanting to scream obscenities at the room. Dawn’s frustration with her lack of attention or affection is totally justified, but completely unrecognized by her parents. Eventually, Dawn sneaks downstairs in the middle of the night, removes the tape from the VCR, and smashes it with a hammer. She returns to her room, hammer in hand, and sees Missy, peacefully asleep. She looks down at the hammer, then approaches Missy slowly. She hovers over the bed, prepares to strike, but then holds back. She sits on her bed, whispers, “You’re so lucky” to Missy, and then hides the hammer beneath her pillow.
Toward the end of the film, Missy goes missing and her parents are overcome with sadness. Dawn continues to resent her, because, even when she’s not at home, she is still the center of attention. Finally feeling bad for Missy, Dawn takes a trip to New York to search for her in an attempt to bring her family back together and hopefully attain the love and acceptance of which she has been starved. Sadly, Dawn’s absence is barely noticed. Upon her return, Dawn expresses to her brother that she’s not going to school, because her mother is concerned that she might also get kidnapped. Mark scoffs, muttering “yeah, right!” in a way that makes it apparent that he does not think that anyone would consider Dawn worthy of kidnapping, because she is not cute or sweet or charming. Not even a criminal would want her.
The film concludes with Dawn riding on a bus to Disney World with her school’s a cappella group. The pain of the school year is put on hold, but there is no conclusion, no progress made in her search for affection. Dawn is still lost, confused, and alone.
I think Solondz did a tragically beautiful job of gripping the memories I had violently repressed and not only highlighting them, but also making them darkly comedic in Dawn’s performance. I found it fascinating that the speech of the adolescents and the speech of the adults differed only in the ability to make one’s selfish nature appear more justifiable (the adults always seem to be more noble, even in the extreme instance of demanding that another’s place of solace be destroyed). Because adolescents are unable to appear noble in their selfishness, the way they speak becomes raw and honest, more so than is deemed appropriate by society. The language used by Dawn and her peers is so satisfying, because it is uncensored, emotionally charged, and riddled with muddled expectations (much like life, I guess). Dawn’s brother, Mark, in his concluding quote, eloquently captures the trials and tribulations of adolescence: “All of junior high sucks. High school’s better; it’s closer to college. They’ll call you names, but not as much to your face.”