Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) lives in a terrible world; she's in seventh grade and struggling to survive. Actually, it's a wonder she's still alive -- her social skills are so limited that she believes telling the pep squad "I'm not a lesbian" will make them stop chanting "lesbo, lesbo, lesbo!"
Dawn's character, a triumph of casting and costuming, is everything the movie is -- poignant and familiar. Her glasses are horrible and apparently do not help her see; she peers at everything with a geeky squint. Her clothes are worse. At one point, she wears a T-shirt with an applique chicken. (A chicken! A happy cartoon chicken that seems to be holding an accordion!)
Dawn is "Wiener Dog" and "Dog Face" at school, and not much better at home. Her parents are normal enough, as suburbanites go, but Dawn is of no interest to them. They've got a son (Matthew Faber) who's college material and doesn't make a move without wondering how it will look on his applications. And then there's their cute baby girl, Missy (Daria Kalinina). Always in pink tights and tutu, Missy spends her day hopping about on the lawn and her evening cuddled on the couch with mom and dad. Even at home, in the TV room, Dawn is an outcast.
She's not entirely alone, however. Solondz did not make a movie about an awkward gifted child and how everyone was mean to her; he was after something bigger. This is a movie about junior high. As we all know, at that age, you're nothing; you have only the vaguest idea about what you want to be (popular, whatever that is) and no good ideas about what you might become. To keep his movie from becoming another bitter dweeb memoir, Solondz introduces another lost character. Brandon McCarthy (Brendan Sexton Jr.) is not a good student, and his clothes are MTV-appropriate. Still, he's as uncertain and lonely, and as driven, as Dawn.
Brandon belongs to a clique of sorts: Jed (Telly Pontidis) and Lance (Herbie Duarte), fellow thugs who let him join in their bullying. Jed and Lance particularly enjoy calling Poindexters "faggot," and they're kind enough to let Brandon throw a few punches, too. With that support at school, and a louse for a dad, he's clearly embarked on a bad path. Nonetheless, just as his meathead buddies are drawn to torment boys because they're attracted to them, Brandon can't stop messing with Dawn.
A scrawny, flannel-clad mess of peach fuzz and attitude, Brandon has come up with the idea that if his current girlfriend, an aggressive brat with stringy hair, demands attention, a good girl like Dawn must be "raped." Plus, he's working on being a tough guy. Never mind that he has no idea how to rape anyone; he's going to be a tough guy. His instincts for tenderness must be suppressed, especially because they're likely to be ignored. It is Solondz's genius that even after we've learned about his gentle nature, we can't help thinking the worst about Brandon. When he attempts to wrangle a pool party invitation by giving a popular girl a gift, a handful of something crudely wrapped in a paper napkin, we cringe, expecting something unspeakably foul.
That's the thing -- we at once sympathize with the characters and make the same mistakes about them that everyone else does. Solondz's film is a somber reflection on a dreadful part of growing up, and yet it's a wonderful work on many levels. The story is head and shoulders above most scripts, and Welcome to the Dollhouse uses a variety of lively tricks to present its story. Gentle humor appears here and there, and the garish, slightly unreal tone -- think Edward Scissorhands -- allows us to watch the action from a safe distance. On every level, this sincere, thoughtful film marks an impressive debut from a talented director. I can't wait to see what Todd Solondz does next.
Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Directed by Todd Solondz. With Heather Matarazzo and Brendan Sexton Jr.