[Trigger warning: sexual assault mention]
American coming-of-age films tend to focus on high school, reminding you of the torture that the unpopular kids have to suffer in the kingdom of jocks and cheerleaders. I cannot be the only one who wishes to forget high school, or at least some parts of it. However, sometimes I find a film that reminds me of the pains of high school while also making fun of them, and the result is very enjoyable.
Such a film is Todd Solondz’s 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse. A dark and funny drama-comedy, it focuses on Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), an unpopular seventh-grader in Junior High. Her locker is decorated with her nickname ‘Wiener dog’, she is the target of spitballs, and when she tries to help a bullied kid, he doesn’t want anything to do with her. She falls for Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius), who’s singing in his nerdy brother’s band, but the only boy who will show her any affection is Brandy McCarthy (Brendan Sexton III), a troubled kid who threatens to rape her.
The movie exaggerates and satirises the torture that is Junior High and being a teenager, but this exaggeration is what makes it work. Matarazzo’s great acting brings out all the different sides of Dawn, and you can’t help but sympathise with her, even when she acts foolishly (or dresses in questionable outfits). Welcome to the Dollhouse‘s attention to detail helps to portray all the emotions of a pre-teenage girl in the most realistic way. The attraction towards older boys with long hair who play the guitar and with whom you don’t stand a chance? Check. The desire to get away from Junior High? Check. And of course, worst of all: the anxiety and uncertainty of having to find a seat in the cafeteria when you’re alone? Check, check, check. The ways in which Solondz uses the soundtrack to convey emotions is also a special treat. The drumbeat that starts whenever Dawn gets angry and acts rebelliously resembles a fast-beating heart, and, after the first time, you know what to expect every time it bursts through the speakers.
Welcome to the Dollhouse is a fun movie, but it’s still dark, and at times I found it hard to watch. No teenager deserves to be bullied by her classmates and shunned by her parents, and the mentions of sexual violence are unsettling. Still, the story is both important to tell and enjoyable to watch, and it’s no surprise that the movie is regarded as a cult classic.
[Elsa Lindström – she/her – @elsary]