Principal: Now what exactly did you do, Dawn?
Dawn: (mumbling) I shot a spit ball…
Principal: Speak up, I can’t hear you.
Dawn: I shot a spit ball.
Marj: You shot a what?!
Harv: She shot a spit ball!
Principal: A teacher was almost blinded.
Dawn: I was fighting back.
Marj: (aggressive) Whoever told you to fight back?!
Principal: Dawn, are you having social problems?
Marj: Yes! She’s got no friends.
Dawn: I’ve got friends.
Marj: (aggressive) Who?!
Marj: Case closed. She’s a loner.
(Dawn Wiener; the soft spoken main protagonist of Welcome to the Dollhouse, played by Heather Matarazzo)
Ugh…God damn it, Marj….Who said being a loner was a bad thing?
Welcome to the Dollhouse is one of those films that’s pretty triggering to watch, especially if you’ve had the experiences that come along with being bullied in grade school. But that’s not the worst part…
Writer, producer, and director, Todd Solondz gives his audience a pretty painfully realistic depiction of what life can be like for a social outcast, preteen girl. It’s almost too painful…mainly because he beats us over the head with what he thinks is realistic. …Yet, it’s a Todd Solondz film. Things seem to be pretty bleak and bad in general–at least atmosphere & tone wise. …And by bad, I mean brutal. When you think about it…Dawn isn’t to blame for her surroundings, lack of friends, negligent family, and the heat she takes at school from her peers. In life not everyone will like us, but we don’t need to add fuel to the fire either by engaging in the same mudslinging tactics that the bullies use….which is exactly what Dawn did.
Yet, Dawn probably wasn’t aware of any other way to handle her tormenters. With no guidance, a mentor, or an older teen or adult to encourage her in someway, she was on her own to figure things out. In real life, that’s how it is for many of us. Not one person in Welcome to the Dollhouse had any compassion whatsoever for Dawn. Everyone, with the exception of a couple of people, came off as either a heartless asshole or just flat out didn’t care. To be fair though, she had every right to protect herself. No one deserves to be treated with such hate or neglect.
Yet, Dawn gets a nuclear blast of rage and hate from her peers and an indifferent, nonchalant, neglectful attitude from her entire immediate family. It makes me wonder what was going through Solondz head when he wrote and directed Welcome To The Dollhouse, and it’s sequel, Palindromes.
Dawn dealt with the cards she was dealt at that particular point in time the events of Welcome to the Dollhouse took place. She was a sweet, soft spoken kid. All she was trying to do is find her place in the world. And it’s really tough and challenging to do that when you are constantly being shit on day in and day out.
One thing is definitely for certain:
Let’s face it:
Dawn was surrounded by assholes. …More than she could count. And I don’t use that term loosely. My guess is that many of you, whom have found your way to this blog entry, have seen Welcome to the Dollhouse and know exactly what I’m talking about. Those preteens & the teachers were just plain awful. Junior high school is bad enough with all of the growing up, hormones, & confused emotions flying around. But Dawn? She couldn’t catch a break. And every attempt at fighting back was met with opposition to the maximum.
(Harvey & Marj Wiener; Dawn’s parents played by Angela Pietropinto & Bill Buell)
And these two? ‘Harv & Marj'; they saw Dawn as more of an inconvenience, than an actual priority….
…Or at least that’s how it seemed.
In truth, like many parents, Harv & Marj didn’t connect with Dawn as strongly as they did with her younger sister and older brother, Missy & Mark. It’s easy to say that Missy was the ‘favorite child;’ …and she was. ;-) Yet, it was made very clear that Harv and Marj did very little to get to know their oldest daughter. And when you don’t get to know your own children…well…. saying ‘there’s bound to be a communication barrier between both parties’ is quite an obvious understatement.
(Missy Wiener & Marj Wiener)
The first dinner table scene in Welcome to the Dollhouse brilliantly demonstrates the conspicuous double standard certain parents have for one of their children, versus the other. Marj adoringly looks at Missy as she suggests that Dawn be enrolled in a ‘reform school’ after Missy claims that Dawn was bothering her. …Well…Dawn was mouthing ‘fuck you’ over and over again, mimicking her tormentor, Brandon McCarthy from earlier that day in hopes that it would bother her younger sister.
Not a smart move on Dawn’s part…
Still, even if Dawn wasn’t doing anything, her mother–who technically didn’t actually see Dawn mouthing anything–assumed that Missy was telling the truth. Marj also assumes that Missy didn’t mean what she said. Instead of making both of them apologize to each other, Marj completely excuses Missy’s behavior, and makes Dawn apologize; the punishment not being able to leave the table until she apologizes and says she loves her sister. Dawn stubbornly refuses, and ends up sitting at the dinner table for hours afterward until her mother orders her to get to bed.
Regardless of Dawn’s own immature behavior, it’s Marj who shouldn’t have made an excuse for Missy manipulative behavior.
So…In that regard:
Good for Dawn for not budging.
At the same time, this was an opportunity for Dawn to take responsibility for her own behavior (in some form at least.)
I find many of the confrontational scenes between Dawn & her parents to be very relatable. The injustice dished out to Dawn, the phony behavior from Marj to keep up appearances of a perfect family, and the pressure cooker of a situation that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere–until the beginning of Palindromes 10 years later.
The chipping of Dawn’s spirit is enough to make one cringe many times over…
For example, Marj sets up a family meeting in the living room, asking Mark & Missy to back her up as she talks to Dawn about removing her club house in the backyard. Marj wants the extra room for her & Harv’s 20th anniversary party. Dawn, of course, refuses; knowing full well that’s the only safe haven & place she can truly call her own. Marj argues that Dawn’s getting too old to have a play house, yet many kids her age have tree houses. I understand that the parents need the space temporarily, but they don’t even remotely offer to rebuild a better club house for her afterwards. Nor do they care that her spirit is crushed because of it. She may be in junior high, but she’s still just a kid trying to be a kid. Parents shouldn’t be in such a big hurry for their children to grow up.
(Dawn’s ‘Special People’s Club‘ house–RIP…Club House. You deserve to be resurrected into a much better sanctuary.)
Dawn spent most of her time inside the house during the anniversary party; spending a good chunk of time looking for her much older high school crush, Steve Rogers, the hunky Mark tutors for Computer Science class, and temporarily sings in his band. When Marj & Harv question Dawn–while she looks for Steve–about her whereabouts, Dawn responds flippantly and continues her search.
(A perfect portrait of self-centered parents)
On a personal note: I knew a girl whom lived down the street from myself as a kid, who was berated on a constant basis by her mother. This girls mother had no filters; she even berating my childhood friend in front of my own mother and I. This little girl, like Dawn, was nice at heart but often lashed out at myself and others because the years of verbal abuse smashed her spirit down to a point where she couldn’t take any sort of criticism. So I do have an objective understanding of why Dawn sporadically acts out.
To make matters worse, during the viewing of their anniversary video, Harv & Marj laugh at Dawn getting pushed into the swimming pool by Missy. They make nice comments about their other children, but laugh a moment that was pretty humiliating for Dawn. Missy requests they watch it again. Whether they do or don’t is a mystery, but one thing is for certain: This is what I would call a ‘last straw moment’ for Dawn.
Later that night, Dawn takes the tape out of the VCR, takes it outside, and smashes it to pieces with a hammer. In that moment, I believe she was able to take back some control and power through this action. As destructive as it may have been, it doesn’t end there. Not giving Missy the note Marj told Dawn to give her about getting a ride from a friend after ballet practice was a huge mistake; as it lead to Missy’s kidnapping. Even when Dawn runs away to NYC for a day to find Missy, Harv & Marj hardly notice Dawn is gone.
Dawn was far from an angel, given her sporadically rude behavior throughout the film. Yet, no child deserves to have their spirit shit on by the individuals surrounding them. And when a parent does it? Well…that must make them a real special kind of asshole.
(I’d like to think this is Dawn, after smashing the video tape, saying “I have no more fucks to give…”)
The only person that seemed to have anything remotely close to sympathy for Dawn was her brother, Mark. He takes a less emotional approach though, but does inform Dawn when she asks him questions:
Dawn: Is high school better than junior high?
Mark: All of junior high school sucks. High school’s better; it’s closer to college. They’ll call you names, but not as much to your face.
(Mark Wiener, Dawn’s brother)
In Welcome to the Dollhouse’s sequel, Palindromes we come to find that Dawn apparently had committed suicide ten years after the events of Welcome to the Dollhouse, and had become pregnant before doing so. Personally, I call bullshit on that. Dawn had much too stubborn of a nature to kill herself. She may have been beaten down verbally, and possibly physically…but she would never take her own life. She would have risen above all that crap.
I’m willing to bet the suicide ruling was a cover up by her family.
Even Heather Matarazzo seems to agree with myself on that point:
Much of Welcome to the Dollhouse feels satirical, with many elements of truth. The anniversary song that goes “Harv & Marj are the greatest couple the world has ever known….” is utterly ridiculous of course…But it highlights the phony behavior that Harv & Marj display.
All in all, Dawn’s parents may have loved her on some humdrum level, but they didn’t make her a priority–nor were they very attentive or compassionate parents. And they certainly didn’t encourage her to cultivate her musical talents as a pianist. No. They apparently had more important things to do.
I mean…shit…even Dawn’s coffin is a reflection of how her parents felt about her:
Trust me. If it were Missy who bit the dust that coffin would be made of pink platinum and adorned with flowers.
(Dawn’s coffin during her funeral in Palindromes (2004))
Just goes to show that if you don’t respect, love, or value your children: You may lose them.
For Dawn’s sake, I hope she was reincarnated into a family who show her nothing but love, compassion, & kindness.