Todd Solondz neatly summed up his creative sensibilities in the title of his first film. The problem was that nobody saw 1989’s Fear, Anxiety & Depression. The failure of his debut almost made him throw in the towel. Instead, backed by financing from a friend, Solondz gave it another shot. Years later, he’d become one of film’s more polarizing directors when 1998’s Happiness hit theaters. The pursuit of that film’s title rarely comes to fruition for Solondz’s characters. Though Happiness is easily Solondz’s most controversial film—dealing heavily as it does with pedophilia and deviant sexuality—in many ways his 1995 breakthrough, Welcome to the Dollhouse, is his most brutal.

Solondz has been criticized for too often sneering at the pathetic characters he creates, for culling ink-black comedy from the trampled-upon souls of the hopeless. Such a view is slightly reductive, given that he imbues his characters with humanity, even if filtered through the inherent futility and existential angst of the human condition. But it’s true that he doesn’t offer his tortured protagonists much chance to come up for air. That’s certainly the case with Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), an awkward, persecuted 7th grader who takes it on the chin from cruel classmates, heartless teachers and neglectful parents alike.

Dawn embodies “middle child syndrome” to the extreme. Her parents’ pride is reserved for her bookish high-schooler brother, whose every action seems in preparation for his college résumé. Meanwhile, her parents’ affection lies primarily with her too-adorable, tutu-clad little sister. In Dawn, Solondz seeks to shine light on the distasteful reality that children aren’t always loved equally by their parents. While Dawn can’t catch a break on the home front, she’s loathed and openly berated at school. This being the ‘90s, Dawn is routinely slurred as “lesbo,” when not referred to by her more frequent nickname of “wiener-dog.” In case she had chance to forget, her locker is covered in similarly-worded graffiti, to which school administrators and janitorial staff turn a blind eye. One classmate, curiously named Lolita, forces her to take an eye-witnessed shit. And this being a Solondz film, the lone classmate who actually likes her can only express his affection with threats of rape.

Rather than revel in an actual chance for junior high puppy love, Dawn has her sights set on the unrequited variety. She’s enamored with Steve, the douchey, long-haired lead singer in her brother’s college application-padding garage band. Her crush leads her to exude the less sympathetic qualities that make Welcome to the Dollhouse so intriguing. Solondz subverts the social outcast as a victim trope by making Dawn lash out. She gets nasty with the neighbor kid who looks up to her and, most notably, willfully neglects to pass along a crucial message about an after-ballet-class ride that ultimately gets her little sister kidnapped. Not that this raises Dawn’s status any—even when she runs away to New York City in the naïve hope of finding her little sis, her parents barely notice or care.

In a fashion that would go on to define Solondz’s entire oeuvre, Dawn’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. The film doesn’t conclude with tragedy either. Instead, Welcome to the Dollhouse leaves Dawn locked in her life’s station, unable to thwart her routine persecution or find any kind of transcendence from her forsaken lot. For most youngsters, junior high can be the pits, but rarely is a kid’s treatment so objectively awful. With Dollhouse, Solondz begins his skewering of suburban family life by simply rendering sensationalized depictions of situations that sadly happen every day.

Like most films prominently featuring life in high school (or in this case, junior high), Dollhouse can’t escape its era. Twenty years later, the dependence on landline phones obviously comes off as dated. And the world has certainly changed with the advent of social media. Not only has cyber-bullying become a major concern, but viral nature of the internet has also allowed for an overwhelming anti-bullying movement. Dawn’s predicament would simply be much different today, both with more avenues for bullies to pile on and more effective means of drawing attention to her plight. And the vernacular of the schoolyard is also strikingly ‘90s, with incessant use of “faggot” and “retard” being the unchallenged slurs du jour.

There may not be a consensus on Solondz’s best film, but most people would narrow it down to Welcome to the Dollhouse and the subsequent Happiness. Dollhouse vaulted him from obscurity to the main stage at Sundance, where his film won the Grand Jury Prize. Solondz has yet to recapture the goodwill of his mid-‘90s features. Suburban ennui continued from 2001’s so-so Storytelling on through the arrested development of 2011’s Dark Horse, though at least by the latter film Solondz had learned to give his characters a hint of twisted likeability. But fear not—we may not have seen the end of Dawn Wiener. Solondz is currently developing his next film, Wiener-Dog, a movie that will literally follow the exploits of a dachshund while also checking in on an adult Dawn as played by Greta Gerwig. The smart money’s on one of them getting run over by a Wienermobile full of dildos at the end.

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