Todd Solondz’s debut feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, serves up almost the very definition of black comedy. 21 years since its TIFF premiere, and on the eve of its pseudo-sequel Wiener-Dog finding UK release, it is still thought of as a controversial and divisive film. In actual fact, this cult classic is possibly the most psychologically realistic coming-of-age film ever put together, a subversive and relatable gem in a field of otherwise somewhat samey indie releases about “finding things” and coming together. Forget misfit toys and breakfast clubs; this makes you feel genuinely better about yourself simply by acknowledging that, often, adolescence is just a series of rampant, repetitive indignities. Oh, and also by being insanely funny.
The film’s plot reveals itself subtly, branching off into various strands before apparently becoming something else altogether. Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) is an 11-year-old recently moved into junior high, whose unpopularity is probably unparalleled with anyone else in film history – such are the hyperbolically awful things that Solondz dumps on her in the first 10 minutes. A famous joke sees her saving a kid from a group of bullies, only for that kid to call her “Wiener-dog” and run away; probably the comic apex though, and among Solondz’s greatest moments, is Dawn sheepishly reading to her class an essay on “dignity”, every few words punctuated by her teacher yelling “Speak up!”. It all feels, as with so many of the incidental situations throughout this film, like any number of humiliating memories we’ve been trying to repress.
Anyway, this slowly-built plot (not that the film itself is slow, at a brisk and absorbing 87 minutes): Dawn falls head-over-heels with Steve Rodgers, the Jim Morrison-aping high school hunk who, being at least 17, really doesn’t notice her in “that” way. At the same time a more unexpected relationship develops with her troubled classmate Brandon, a relationship that swings between the sweetly innocent and the truly adult. Throughout, Dawn blames her personal frustrations on her blonde, ballet-dancing younger sister Missy who, largely thanks to Dawn’s spiteful machinations, gets kidnapped by a paedophile in the third act.
Maybe it’s just become clear where the controversy lies. But the clever thing is how surefooted Solondz keeps things, always finding cause for humour without forgetting to respect his characters’ inner lives. Dawn’s mother, Marj, is genuinely distraught over Missy’s disappearance; the father, Harv, has a nervous breakdown. We’re not directed to laugh at these. Most important of all, though, is Dawn’s reaction – and through all this apparently misplaced grimness, Solondz makes it quite clear that his blackest of black-comic situations isn’t quite as it seems. The film makes no half-baked excuse for its own ostensible tastelessness; it does not go for broke in a vapid attempt at shock. That’s not the filmmaker’s mission.
Instead, Solondz uses a variant on the Roald Dahl principle, the one that speaks to its young audience using grotesque exaggeration. Dollhouse is absolutely not intended as a kids’ film – the language alone makes this clear – but the absurd stylings work at the same kind of expressionist level, presenting universal feelings of confusion and humiliation via outlandish and sometimes horrific scenarios. The point is best illustrated, as so many points are, by a dream sequence towards the end: Dawn saves Missy in New York, only for Marj to turn up and finally say “I love you, Dawn”; Harv, in his bed, says “I love you, Dawn”; the brother, Mark, admits “I love you, Dawn”; the entire school body chant “We love you, Dawn!” – and of course she wakes up, in a doorway, alone, and calls home. Turns out Missy has actually been found, in a neighbour’s basement (“Mrs Kasdan’s probably going to file for divorce”), and rather than being the hero Dawn’s actually gonna be in a heap of trouble for assuming her rescue mission without telling anyone. So what’s the point? It’s complex. In many ways Dawn, whose constant recourse has been to blame Missy’s perfect-ness for her own problems, got precisely what she wanted when her sister disappeared – but of course, the reality of the situation was far more serious than she imagined. Moreover our hero, a hyperreal representation of adolescence, is less bothered about her sister than she is the possibility of punishment and blame; she wants to save her sister simply so she can finally be a hero. But even that is foiled by sheer circumstance. As with the rest of the film’s cyclical repetitions, Dawn’s experience of Missy’s kidnapping is an undeveloping rotation of mild indignities.
Maybe, then, you just never get exactly what you want. Heck, Dawn doesn’t even get the guy – both Steve and Brandon leave for New York, in an ironic nod to more classic stories of disaffected teens. Will there be a silver lining at the end, some arrow pointing out of adolescence? No way; the denouement of the film in fact is almost distressingly embarrassing, were it not for its dreamlike feel. We weren’t exaggerating: there really is no fist-pumping moment of clarity and self-realisation. Just one thing after another. And that’s the brilliance, and the concealed sensitivity of Solondz’s treatment of dark topics: it all reflects back on Dawn, and the extent to which the universe is shitting only on her, a self-possessed preadolescent.
But this wouldn’t work if it was aimed at children, if it tried to present itself as a didactic guide to overcoming pitfalls. The film is written quite explicitly for adults (and older, er, children) while brilliantly retaining a decidedly juvenile perspective and voice. Think how strange that is. The most popular comparison in this regard would be To Kill A Mockingbird, which has a child’s perspective despite being very serious and adult – yet this, and the multitude of other works one can apply this to, are at least accessible to younger audiences depending on their maturity; Dollhouse has an almost unreconcilable disparity lurking in its very conception.
This is where the film transcends its surface-level plotting. As with the title song (above), performed briefly in the film by Steve and Mark’s band (Mark: “With this kind of substantial extracurricular activity, I’ll have it made”), there is a constant tension between the dollhouse of junior high and the adult world it increasingly sets up. We don’t even follow the usual pattern of slowly-reached maturity with Dollhouse; Dawn goes forward, and backward, trapped in her ignoble life like a Kafkaesque limbo. Nothing progresses like in a traditional heroic plot structure. Even Missy’s kidnapping immediately becomes 100% lighter when it emerges her darkest ordeal was having fully-clothed photos taken (thank god Solondz reins it back in at this point). But it goes further; the complicated blend of typical onscreen childhood tropes with more unsavory adult plot points becomes a rigorous commentary on just why growing up is so strange. For instance, Solondz seems to argue – or at least wryly suggest – that Mr Kasdan’s unsavory imprisonment of Missy is simply a grimly logical extension of the collective thought process that privileges her for her “cuteness” in the first place. It is shown systematically, and even stated outright, that suburban life shits on Dawn purely for her looks. An 11-year-old girl. We laugh, because of how absurd that is, and how real, and how the entire coming-of-age experience, it turns out, is a joke: at what point are you meant to say “Yes, at this exact moment I have become mature”?
In short, Welcome to the Dollhouse is the ultimate coming-of-age film simply because it is so realistically dour. It may not be something you watch at 13 and grow up with; it may not hold the teenage viewer’s hand as they move through school and adolescence, and it may not contain any grand epiphanies, any dead bodies, alien friends or letters signed “the brain, the athlete, the basket case,” etc., but that’s OK – it goes further than that. Instead of trying to ingratiate itself into the viewer’s very personal experiences, attempting to give some overbearing reassurance that it’ll all turn out fine, it just joins you, an adult, at the end of it all to look back and wince. Instead of seeing the world as we want to see it, in the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions, it de-aestheticises the whole experience and reflects anew, with heightened realism, the simple fact that no matter how much we romanticise our teenage years and the people that were there for us, growing up is an intrinsically strange and lonely experience, something everybody does differently, and so something we can only really do by ourselves. Growing up is not inspiring and romantic; it is frustrating, chaotic and wholly, fundamentally traumatising.
Solondz deliberately reminds us of this fact using grave humiliations and hilarious indignities to equal extents. He empathises, to varying extents, with every single character while cackling with morbid, calculated contempt. It becomes, at times, a distinctly uncomfortable film, before dashing deftly back to lightness. It is stupidly juvenile and inappropriately mature. It is the perfect, rigorous, hysterical representation of that seemingly endless chunk of life in which everything feels up for grabs including, terrifyingly, our fundamental sense of innocence. There is no sense of arrested development here, yet neither is there much clear personal growth; on the contrary, the development of Dawn Wiener is forged in the perpetual motion of microaggressive horror.
Solondz continued to create blackly comic juxtapositions between young and old, mature and juvenile, and other sliding scales of appropriateness in his subsequent films – but Dollhouse is the only one to fully embrace its innocent side at the same time as its edge. And though his darker films have their merits – some would argue Solondz’s second feature, Happiness, is the true masterpiece – there is something special about Dollhouse. It has that same jagged edge, but it’s humanised through sheer perspective: the knowledge, really, that life can get really dark at a young age but you still yet don’t understand all of it and its ramifications until some time afterwards. It is such a unique concept, one that illuminates past and present and invites you to laugh – not cringe, but actually laugh – at your own awkward maturation. No matter what scorn and indignity he tries to pour on a grown-up Wiener (she actually committed suicide in 2004’s Palindromes, so thank god she’s somehow back in Wiener-Dog), Solondz will forever have captured something perfect and universal through Dawn and her twisted dollhouse.