If at the age of 12 or 13 you weren’t part of the popular in-crowd filled with perfect little miss sunshines, then you will appreciate what Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) is going through in this quasi coming age movie of a bullied junior highschooler.
Welcome to the Dollhouse is about a girl in junior high who is as unpopular as can be. Everyone spits on her, from her school mates, to her teachers, her siblings and even her own parents. Every adult in this movie is an ugly human being and Dawn is caught amidst this ugliness, becoming one of its unfortunate victims.
No one likes Dawn; in fact, everyone hates her. When she asks one of her tormentors why she hates her so much, she responds “because you are ugly“.
That pretty much sums it all up, as all the people in Dawn’s life are mean to her and flat out assholes for no apparent reason. Her mother, her father, her brother, her teachers, her peers – and even her little sister whom I hated so much that in fact when she was kidnapped in the end I was actually hoping they had hurt her. Seeing a mere 7 year old be so mean already doesn’t leave much hope for the rest of us. Everyone, without exception, is mean and cruel to Dawn.
I would not call this movie a comedy or particularly funny. It is actually filled with social commentary, is sad and while humorous at times, it is depressing to watch Dawn be surrounded by so much dislike and lack of love in her life.
The laughter that occasionally ensues is immediately muted by the completely bleak and sad situation Dawn is in. Even the scene where she dreams she rescued her sister and everyone tells her they love her: that wasn;t funny, that was tragic. This girl is so parched for love, she dreams it.
The director is very smart and knows what he is doing and he would never degrade this movie by inserting lame comedic relief in there. So the “humor” is not really humor, it is the sad theme strategically inserted, underscoring Dawn’s plight, unhappiness and desolation. No wonder she is mean to those weaker than her, the girl doesn’t know anything else. All the adults in her life are despicable human beings presenting some of the worst qualities, so she can’t give what she never received.
There is one scene, after her sister has been kidnapped, where she tells her brother that their mom doesn’t want her to go to school today because she is afraid she might be kidnapped too, and her brother responds deridingly “yeah right“; exemplifying how worthless Dawn is made feel as her own brother doesn’t think she is even worth kidnapping.
Welcome to the Dollhouse is a powerful movie; it is brutally honest and it will not sugarcoat junior high and being an unpopular-and-emotionally-abused 12 year-old experience for you.
The sad thing about it, of course, is that people really are like that in life. I could identify with Dawn in so many ways. When I was 12, I was wearing huge glasses and dorky clothes and didn’t fit in and just wasn’t popular at all and people in my school, including my teachers, made me feel worthless. I remember one time I was wearing a jacket with a big hood and this kid behind me in line slowly dumped his yogurt, spoon by spoon, into my hood while I was standing in line for lunch.
I guess director/writer Todd Solondz must have gone through similar humiliating experiences, which is why he was able to retell Dawn’s plight in such painful accuracy and so masterfully.
The ending is pretty strong as well because it is not a sappy, stupid Hollywood ending, but a real-life one. The character of Dawn, unlike the characters of many of the high school classics of the 80s that unduly idolize the school years – such as Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club and Can’t Buy Me Love etc. – doesn’t come out of age, or grows as a person, is now popular or suddenly finds the love of her life.
Nothing really is resolved or changes for Dawn. When she goes looking for her sister in New York and doesn’t come home at night, no one even notices she was gone. Her parents still treat her like dirt and mostly ignore her, she still doesn’t have any friends or gained popularity of any kind and she still looks in the mirror everyday wondering why everyone hates her so much.
A lot of people complain about the ending, stating that it has no resolution and that her circumstances donyt change. But that is the whole point. As Thoreau once said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation“. Their plights go unnoticed and then they die. Most people who are treated like Dawn don’t become either a) happy, pretty, successful, fit, loved, tanned people or b) turn to a life of crime becoming the Columbine shooters. On the contrary, they just fade away, suffer through it and realize that in the end they can’t change anything; like Dawn at the end of the movie.
That is because in real life, there isn’t a happy ending at the end of the 90 minutes and sometimes people just aren’t able to rise above their assigned rung on the social ladder. I guess that is why so many people find this movie difficult to watch or dismiss it altogether.