Middle-school student Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) is having a lot of growing pains that seem to all just be piling-up on each other, one after the other. She’s not only teased and bullied at school for looking the way she does, but when she goes home, the kind of place she expects to be “a sanctuary” of sorts, she gets heckled and criticized there by all of her family. Basically, she can’t win, no matter where she goes; after all, she’s the middle child between her nerdy older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) and her perky younger sister Missy (Daria Kalinina), who seem to gather all of the attention from their desperate parents. But now Dawn feels as if she’s got something going on for her life when she meets a cute, but much older boy (Eric Mabius) whom her brother knows and doesn’t want around Dawn. However, the only person who she seems to get the most attention from is the local bully named Brandon (Brendan Sexton III), who not only threatens to rape her, but seems like he actually wants to hurt her. That is, until the two actually do meet up and for some reason, Dawn’s life may be forever changed.
Todd Solondz is definitely a writer/director with a style of his own that, if you aren’t more than willing to accept and roll with, his movies can tend to be a miserable slog. With the exception of maybe Happiness, all of Solondz’s movies seem to hold shelter under the same umbrella where characters are constantly terrible to one another, saying mean, cruel and nasty things, and generally acting out in weird, sometimes sadistic ways. Solondz wants to say a lot with this stylistic choice of his own and for the most part, it can work, but other times, it can feel like he’s straining himself just to be more and more miserable than before.
Welcome to the Dollhouse feels like the perfect middle-ground for Solondz and his trademarks – for better, as well as for worse.
While a solid portion of the story wants to deal with a coming-of-age tale, there’s also another portion that seems perfectly fine with just seeing how far and willing these characters are able to being absolutely awful to one another. For instance, Dawn is clearly the least-liked out of her whole family, so much so that her parents clearly favorite the younger one over her and also want to rip down her playhouse she has out back. There’s some humor in the idea that no matter how hard Dawn tries, she can’t get a break from the rest of her family, but it’s also a joke that gets replayed way too often, and after a short while, just becomes cruel.
Solondz may show us that he does care about Dawn, at the end, throughout, it’s kind of hard not to think that there’s at least some part of him enjoying poking the stick at Dawn when she’s down, out and in need of an arm to pull her back up. Some may disagree with this notion, but it’s what continued to bother me throughout the movie – in fact, more so than any of the times that the Brandon kid dropped the word “rape”. In a way, Solondz is trying to poke fun at the reason for why that word is being used, especially from that character – everything else, especially the stuff that seems directed at Dawn, mostly seems like him getting his rocks off for the sole sake of getting his rocks off.
That said, Heather Matarazzo is quite great as Dawn Weiner and it’s no wonder why she actually did something with her life and career after this. At only 12 years of age, Matarazzo is able to find just the right bits and pieces of subtlety to make Dawn more than just your average nerdy, little girl; she’s got a heart and soul to her that wants to be loved, but is also damn confused about what love actually is. Solondz may throw a lot at her, but Matarazzo is a smart enough actress, even at such a young age, that she gets through it all, making us love this character even more, flaws and all.
The rest of the characters don’t fare as well as Dawn, but some at least show some semblance of humanity that’s very hard to come by in Solondz’s movies.
Matthew Faber’s Mark is just a nerd who can’t seem to do anything with his band; Daria Kalinina is basically told to play a brat and, well, as Missy, that’s exactly what she does; Eric Mabius is good as Steve Rodgers, highlighting that this guy may actually just be a genuine nice dude, even if Dawn is a little creepy; and then, there’s the aforementioned Brandon, as played by Brendan Sexton III. His character, as well as his subplot, is perhaps the most interesting thing that Welcome to the Dollhouse has going for it, because it not only surprises, but also is a little sweet, too.
Initially, the relationship that Brandon has with Dawn may seem just like another bully-nerd kind of thing going on, eventually, it starts to show different shadings. It shows that, at his heart, Solondz really does care about these young characters and how they connect with one another, even if they really don’t have a single clue how to express their connection, or even got a single clue of what’s going on. Some of Solondz’s more affectionate moments come out in the scenes between Dawn and Brandon, and honestly, I would have been fine with a movie just about them both.
Obviously, minus all of the usual despicable Solondz trademarks.
Consensus: With enough attention to its character, Welcome to the Dollhouse gets by on what could have been perceived as Todd Solondz getting too deep into his character’s own depression and misery, even if it can sometimes come off that way.
6 / 10