WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE: Minor Victories

Posted: 28/02/2010 in The Verdict
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Welcome To the Dollhouse (wpd. Solondz, 1995. US)

I love this film.

Some people think it’s harsh, but it’s funny because it’s true. Many of us know that ‘fly buzzing against a window’ sensation; the endless procession of tiny humiliations and defeats that was senior school (or Junior High, or whatever your national equivalent is for thirteen year olds.) From the ironic, lingering zoom in to the idealised, patriarchal American family portrait, to our first view of Dawn in an almost mesmerising tracking shot of her long walk through the school cafeteria in search of a seat, and the irrational abuse thrown at her by even the other bullied misfits, to culmination in the awful, jangling discordance of her brother’s band scoring the cutesy Americana of their sister’s ‘ballet’; every moment of the first five minutes of Dollhouse proclaims everything you need to know about Dawn Weiner’s life and Todd Solondz’s world view. This is no testimony for the nuclear family and a Middle American childhood.

Shit happens. He says. Mainly to you. Live with it. The rhythms of editing in Dollhouse are as important as the actors’ comic timing. Though Heather Matarazzo’s perpetually bemused, bespectacled mouth breather does chip in at the opportune moment almost every time.

Dawn’s ongoing battle with her parents and her obnoxious siblings will strike a chord with anyone who has a) a family b) a bit of pragmatism.

Her vile brother is obsessed with “getting into a good school” [university] and forms a band of social misfits called The Quadratics, despite being a three piece, who labour under a delusion that leads them to style themselves after The Stones. Tragically Mark’s only motivation for forming the band is because it will look great on his ‘college résumé’. With a verisimilitude uncharacteristic of American High School movies however, the band are pretty awful, as most school bands tend to be.

Mark’s machinations allow for a shaggy early performance from Daniel Meade off Ugly Betty as teenage heartthrob and dropout Steve, who becomes the object of Dawn’s futile unrequited love. Well we’ve all been there.

You don’t know whether or not to side with Dawn when a childish petulance has catastrophic consequences and she shamelessly pursues the opportunity to fill the void of parental affection. Her middle-child motivation makes you want to hug the kid, but her lack of apparent remorse, while typical of a stubborn adolescent, is troubling.

The conclusion of that little episode is heartbreaking and comic. Poor Dawn. Oh the tragic comedy of life, the injustices of puberty. The children in Dollhouse have a touching unworldliness as arresting as their casual breach of that great American taboo- the C-Word. Is there a more sublime creation in all cinema than The Special People’s Club?[*]

***Minor Spoiler*** At least Dawn recognises her own priorities- she just wants to be popular. In pursuit of that popularity she does something shabby, a crime most of us have perpetrated to some extent- She rejects poor Ralphie on the grounds that he’s ‘a faggot’ and the other kids hate him, even though he is her only friend and she will almost certainly regret her ill-treatment of him in her adult life. In pure childish mimicry she spurns a fellow victim as was done to her. Symmetry in juvenile cruelty.

The verdict? A brief country and western ballad about not coming of age, just muddling on through. Of all recognisable daily defeats this film has to offer, it is perhaps its lack of resolution that rings most true. Despite the bullying and threats of rape, Dollhouse is far more wholesome than Solondz’s other output, the toe curling Happiness and gimmicky Palindromes. Both have their value but his fixation with paedophilia is disquieting to say the least.

Although insurmountably American in its style, references and happenstances, I think anyone who went to school, had a family or took longer than average to grow into their social graces will find a chord struck here. (Although hopefully Weinerdog’s experiences will be to you as parody, rather than documentary.)

The universals inherent in much of Solondz’s work are often overshadowed by his obsession with perversity and his overwhelming desire to get a rise out of Middle America. In many ways it’s a shame because that attitude dramatically reduces his potential audience of people who might get a lot from his films. Or not.

At the same time, however, his lack of mainstream appeal results in semi-cult status, which adds to the experience for those who do find their way to films like Dollhouse. Knowing something they don’t is a minor victory against a world which constantly thwarts you, but that is what gets people like us and Dawn Weiner through life: Minor Victories.


[*] Probably

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