Of all those horrible years of adolescence, I remember best the beginning of seventh grade. Not that the word “best” even remotely applied to the situation.
Because it’s no fun, believe me, when you’re 12 years old, in a new school that is set in a remote barracks on an obscure corner of a Rhode Island naval base, and you’re standing there at the opening-day assembly with your hair slicked back and a Roy Rogers - yes, yes, I know, Roy Rogers - lunchbox in your hand.
But that isn’t even the worst part. The worst part comes when you hear from behind you someone saying, “Nice lunchbox,” followed by a particularly vulgar seven-letter synonym for a part of your anatomy, and you turn around to see a gaggle of teenage psychopaths slouching against the wall, every one of them wearing his long hair swept back in an Elvis Presley-type pompadour.
And each one is regarding you in much the same way a Republican would a tax cut.
That, folks, was what it was like to be in the seventh grade where I grew up. And in many ways it is similar to the experience as portrayed by filmmaker Todd Solondz in his poignant-if-painful movie, “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”
“Welcome to the Dollhouse” involves one year in the life of New Jersey girl Dawn Wiener (newcomer Heather Matarazzo), the middle child of a suburban family for whom nothing, it appears, is ever going to go right.
At home she is seen as the difficult one, nowhere near as bright or motivated as older brother Mark (the “king of the nerds”) and nowhere near as pretty and talented as her little ballerina sister.
But at school it’s even worse. Known as “Wiener Dog,” she is wildly unpopular; she is the slime on the pond floor that even the bottom feeders sweep over. And on those occasions when she attempts to fight back, she is turned on by her teachers - who, like her parents, seem oblivious to the essential unfairness of it all.
Being more interested in effect than action, writer-director Solondz doesn’t follow much of a plotline. Heather battles her parents to save her backyard clubhouse (where her two-person Special People Club holds its meetings), battles the hood who threatens to rape her, battles, seemingly, the whole student body.
But her biggest battle is with her own emotions, which rage over the desire she feels for the lead singer in her brother’s band (although don’t get the wrong idea: Mark plays the clarinet, so you know right away how cool he is). There’s also a sequence involving her little sister and an important message that Dawn fails to deliver… but that’s giving away too much.
As Dawn, 11-year-old Matarazzo pulls off a convincing performance as a girl who fights the position, the very fate, to which she has been born. Viewed by everyone as a loser, she nevertheless stuggles against that vision of the future in every way she can. The problem is that, in so many ways she just is not aware of - her little-girl pajamas, her dorky glasses, her inherent sense of victimization - Dawn seems bent on becoming exactly what everyone says she is.
Her struggle, then, is what lends “Welcome to the Dollhouse” both its sense of comedy - throughout, the movie is hilarious - and its curious feel for the seriousness of life. Solondz exaggerates everything, from Dawn sawing off a Barbie’s head to the damaging effects of a spitwad, and there is humor in this.
But there’s little about a rape threat that can be considered comical. And Solondz never, and I mean never, gives Dawn a means of seeing a happy future.
So much so that it’s as tempting to cry as to laugh when Dawn can’t understand the notion of a particular sexual act involving fingers or when she reaches for her fantasy boyfriend (he, of course, is as unaware of her feelings as he is uncaring about them). Or, most of all, when she bounces to the beat of the catchy tune that her brother’s band hopes will make its reputation (Solondz definitely has a sense of how to use music effectively).
In this moment, Dawn is us and we are Dawn and life has reverted once again the horrors of seventh grade. The question is, will eighth grade be any better?
“Not really,” Mark replies. “All of junior high sucks.”
Yeah, that sure sounds familiar.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Written and directed by Todd Solondz, starring Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton Jr., Daria Kalinina, Matthew Faber and Angela Pietropinto. Running time: 1:27 Rating: R