Todd Solondz gets the comic hell of seventh grade just right in Welcome to the Dollhouse. There's the daily horror of seating arrangements in the cafeteria, the fierce strife among cliques, the awkward fascination with matters sexual, the despotic teachers and squawking parents, the general greasiness. Much of the film seems like a live-action version of The Simpsons -- American social dysfunction rendered with grotesque precision.
But the main character, a desperately homely little girl named Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), lacks the puckish pizazz of Bart Simpson or the precocious canniness of Lisa. She isn't smart, she isn't pretty, and she has a funny name; in the savage society of 13-year-olds, those are the main ingredients in a recipe for malice. Dawn's classmates uniformly deride her as "Wiener Dog," deface her locker, and accuse her of lesbianism. Everybody hates her, even the other losers: When she comes to the defense of a hapless nerd named Troy (Scott Coogan), who's being pummeled by bullies in a dark corridor, he thanks her by shouting, "Leave me alone, Wiener Dog!" and scuttles away.
There's real pathos here, and many of the movie's scenes painfully evoke memories of dreadful, clumsy adolescence, but Solondz (who wrote, directed, and produced) keeps Dawn's story expertly perched on the dark edge of comedy without letting it plunge into mawkishness. Much of the picture's redeeming ludicrousness lies in the peripheral characters, especially Dawn's mother (Angela Pietropinto), who manages to make clear that Dawn is by far the least favorite of her children, and her unfashionable and humorless older brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), who believes that his cacophonous garage band will help get him into an Ivy League school.
Like virtually all teen bands, Mark's group, the Quadratics, is beyond bad -- they're a motley crew of dorks whose lack of talent is unfathomably deep. But in the marketplace of academic transactions they find a bargain: a handsome boy named Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius) who can sing but can't pass computer science, not, at any rate, without Mark's help. The deal is struck, and the pall of shameful despair lifts slightly from the group's thunderous garage rehearsals.
Of course Dawn, who looks like a cross between a troll doll and a Raggedy Ann, finds Steve irresistible. She becomes the band's only groupie. Steve is the white knight who will carry her away from her lifeless suburb and barbarous family. When Mark tells her that Steve is horny and will pay attention to any girl who'll do it with him, she takes heart: She will put out! Her ugliness and her heavy black glasses won't matter; all Steve cares about is her willingness to give him what he wants, and on that question, at least, she exercises some control.
She's too infatuated with Steve to see that a boy her own age, the rakishly handsome troublemaker Brandon McCarthy (Brendan Sexton Jr.) is drawn to her. In classic teen-boy fashion, he demonstrates his attraction to Dawn through cruelty, which culminates in his threat to rape her after school out by the dumpsters. She's plainly terrified of him, and of the act, but she can't quite conceal that she's curious too, and her failure to mount a passionate resistance touches something inside Brandon. He's a boy who cloaks his vulnerabilities in a swaggering callousness, but after some unspoken exchange of signals between the two teens, he lowers his guard. Instead of a rape there's a kiss, and talk.
Solondz sounds the movie's tender notes with the same restrained grace that gives its sharper moments their edge. He manages to be clear without lapsing into obviousness -- without lingering too long, for instance, on Dawn and Brandon's brief shining moment of connection. Like teen sex, it's over almost as soon as it begins, but it redefines their relationship with each other. It's a step, however small and unsteady, toward distant adulthood.
Adulthood can't be too attractive an outcome to Solondz's kids. The movie's grown-ups are a lumpish lot, from the mindlessly authoritarian teacher Mrs. Grissom (Rica Martens), who punishes Dawn for reporting that Brandon has cheated on a test, to Mrs. Wiener, who takes an awful delight in withholding Dawn's piece of cake as punishment for the girl's refusal to dismantle her backyard clubhouse. The cake is, with fanfare, redistributed to Mark and Dawn's younger sister, Missy (Daria Kalinina), while the clubhouse is torn down anyway, to make room for the Wieners' 20th-anniversary party. (Music by ... the Quadratics! With a song written especially for the Wieners by Steve Rodgers.)
It's a wonder that Dawn never breaks down in tears -- her life is one affront, insult, and humiliation after another -- but Solondz understands that 13-year-olds aren't for the most part capable of such epic self-pity. They bob in rough social seas like buoys in hurricanes -- lacking grace, but afloat. They're adapted to their crude world.
One of the movie's earliest scenes, of Dawn carrying her lunch tray while looking for safe harbor at one of the long tables, perfectly captures that moment-by-moment determination to find a place and hold onto it as long as possible. To adult eyes the rejection and hostility are unbearably naked, but then the adult world is one of masks in which hard feelings are more subtly, if no less stingingly, expressed. Adults observe elaborate codes of manners and behavior even when -- especially when -- they despise one another. Public faces are almost always smiling ones; public words are measured.
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