I first watched this movie back when I was sixteen. Living in Italy, this movie never made it to the theatres there, so I obviously found it at my local video rental. Welcome To The Dollhouse chronicles the life of an awkward seventh grader, Dawn Weiner, who is trying to navigate puberty while also having to deal with uncalled for bullying at school and emotional neglect at home. This is the movie that catapulted Heather Matarazzo into stardom, and with good reason. Her performance in the film is so honest, raw, and unflinchingly realistic that you can’t help but cringe in empathy for her character.
Dawn is such a social pariah that even the so-called nerdy types at school don’t want to associate with her. Instead, she has to put up with goth girl Lolita’s bullying and bad-boy Brandon’s threats to rape her. Even her teachers are awful to her, as she’s given detention when she speaks up about Brandon copying her test. When she retakes the test during detention and receives a low grade, she tries to plead with the teacher for a retest. Said teacher finds her behavior revolting enough that she has her write an essay about dignity and grade-grubbing to read in front of the class.
At home, Dawn is mostly neglected by her parents who only have eyes for her younger sister Missy (who is pretty and loves to parade around the house in a pink tutu). Dawn pours all of her frustrations towards her younger sister, but Missy always has the upper hand as her parents (especially her mother) are usually manipulated by the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is their youngest daughter. Things escalate, when one night armed with a hammer she stands over the sleeping figure of Miss with the intent to hit her, and then rethinks her choice and solemnly whispers, “You’re so lucky, you have it so easy.”
Dawn sees a little light of hope when she befriends Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius), a beautiful high schooler with dreams of becoming a rockstar. Steve has agreed to be in her brother Mark’s band in return of getting tutored in Computer Science. It doesn’t take long for Dawn to fall madly in love with Steve, whom in return only acts friendly towards Dawn cause he’s such a narcissist that he basks in her adoration.
The reason why this movie resonates with so many people, especially girls, is that it unabashedly shines a light on an underdog that is constantly taunted, but she isn’t such a good person herself (she ends up gravely insulting her one and only true friend Ralphie and is always bullying Missy). But Heather Matarazzo played Dawn with so much pathos that we can’t help but still side with her even when she’s being downright mean.
For having had one viewing of the movie as a teen, I surprisingly remembered a lot about it. And no matter how many characters kept telling Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn how “ugly” she was, there was something about the actress that compelled me to keep on watching her. She had a quiet charisma to her, and her portrayal of an awkward teen was flawless. I don’t know how many child stars could’ve pulled off such an emotional portrayal.
I recall loving the movie for being a dark comedy, and even upon viewing now, the film is very funny but at the same time very dark. Things never did get better for our poor Dawn. She never gains the insight and self-awareness to be less socially awkward, nor does she get the boy. In fact, the ending is so bleak that you wonder what was the point of the journey. This isn’t the sort of movie that assures you that bullying will stop once you get out of high school nor that Dawn will shed her caterpillar skin to morph into a beautiful butterfly. No, the movie suggests that there are clear social standings in life, and often, where you stand as a teen is where you’ll find yourself at as in an adult. A bleak outlook indeed.