When I was 11 years old, I was obsessed with my hardcover copy of Weird New Jersey. I had become consumed by the idea that the seemingly ordinary place I had lived my whole life held deep, scary secrets—whether they be a Satanic cryptid lurking in the Pine Barrens or the literal gates of Hell hiding underneath a manhole in Clifton. I’d spend hours flipping through my encyclopedic guide to the ghastly side of the Garden State, a hobby which eventually culminated in my making an entire poster board presentation, featuring the Hoboken Monkey-Man alongside cannibalistic albinos, for my fifth grade final project.
Though it didn’t reach me until my later teenage years, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse—and the filmmaker’s entire sickly suburban oeuvre—is a perfect continuation of the state’s uncanny canon. Despite never veering into the supernatural, Welcome to the Dollhouse portrays a bleak otherworldliness that is somehow entirely recognizable as residential New Jersey. Somewhere between bustling metropolis and sleepy suburb, the laws of nature seem to shift ever so slightly, the carefree innocence housed in white picket-fenced homes haunted by a looming threat of violent vulgarity at every unexpected turn.
Or maybe that’s just what adolescent rude awakenings feel like everywhere. For Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), the highly unpleasant experience of puberty is exacerbated by an oppressively superficial suburban society that already deems her ugly, weird and unfit for extensions of basic human decency. Dubbed “Wiener-dog” by her classmates, the 11-year-old seventh grader navigates her complicated feelings towards her rigid family, equally unpopular friends and laughably unattainable crushes all while trying to maintain her composure. The fact that she lives in New Jersey is largely negligible when it comes to her everyday experiences, yet the unrelenting cruelty—both targeted at and perpetrated by Dawn—comes off as uniquely New Jerseyan to me.
After submitting my ode to N.J. oddities, I spent the summer following fifth grade binge-reading other classic urban legends (with this behemoth chronicling 666 “absolutely true” tales as my ultimate companion), unaware that by burying my nose in the fearsome fabrications of others, I was rendered totally unprepared for the more minuscule cruelties of the world that awaited me. Maybe this is why it scarred me so deeply when my own animal-based nickname, the curt but cutting “cow,” started making the rounds soon after I started the sixth grade, eventually morphing into a humiliating chorus of moos trailing behind me as I’d walk from class to class.
It’s odd to have that excruciating but plainly common experience accurately reflected in a coming-of-age film, itself a comparatively harsh divergence from the majority that tend to focus on best friendship, budding romance and awkward girls growing into desirable women. Welcome to the Dollhouse dares to confront this myth with brutal honesty and resulting hilarity. Particularly when it comes to Dawn’s character undergoing any sort of transformation—whether it be of appearance, conscience or worldview—the film subverts a subgenre that overwhelmingly opts to obfuscate the frustrating stagnation of this particular age. Dawn does not become beautiful just because she desperately wishes to be so; she doesn’t learn from her mistakes even when they directly hurt her friends and family.
Instead of refusing to engage in the spiteful nature of the community which regularly ostracizes her, Dawn weaponizes the same insults she suffers in order to make others feel similarly small. Days after being confronted by a horde of cheerleaders that claim she’s a “lesbo,” Dawn hurls the insult at her younger sister Missy—an effortlessly girlish and dainty ballerina who is the undisputed favorite child—after being scolded for drinking soda in the TV room when their mother has instructed them otherwise. When pejoratives fail to diminish Missy’s status as the favorite, Dawn resorts to violent fantasies. In the dead of night, she procures a hammer which she has stashed under her pillow, sneaking across her and Missy’s shared bedroom to hover over her little sister’s bed. Hammer in hand, she yearns to bash Missy’s pretty little sleeping head in, to stain perfectly coiled blonde ringlets with blood and brain matter.
After a moment, she sighs. “You are so lucky,” Dawn whispers as she climbs back into her own bed.
Solondz’s depiction of a violent adolescent fascination rings embarrassingly true. My own fascination with the mysterious and macabre eventually manifested into an (in hindsight unbearably cringy) edginess that felt like thorny protection against a sick, sad world hellbent on hurting me for being different. Of course, I now realize that being a 14-year-old mall goth was not the epic act of transgression I once thought—but in downtrodden losers like Dawn, teenage me saw my not-so-distant past on full display. Violence becomes a comforting realm to dabble in, particularly when the beige sameness of your surroundings begs for an accent of blood spatter and controversy.
Of course, when horrifying reality converges with boring everyday life, the outcome is usually much less titillating. After Dawn passive-aggressively withholds a note instructing her sister to carpool home from ballet, Missy goes missing. Detectives swarm the Wiener’s unremarkable suburban home. Mom can’t stop crying long enough to form a coherent sentence; Dad succumbs to a full-blown panic attack and refuses to leave bed. Dawn tells no one of her blunder, instead taking it upon herself to run off to New York City in order to search for Missy after it’s revealed that her signature pink tutu has been identified in Times Square.
When Dawn falls asleep in an alcove after searching the city in vain, she is jolted awake by a piercing scream. “Dawn, help me!” Missy shrieks as a non-descript man runs with her under his arm like a provincial Frenchman with a baguette.
“Let go of my sister!” Dawn shouts just as the culprit is about to enter the subway. Startled, he unhands Missy, who runs towards Dawn with a loving embrace. Suddenly, their mother rounds the corner. “Oh, Dawn!” she yells breathlessly. “You’re the best daughter a mother could have. I love you so much.”
Suddenly, everyone in Dawn’s life receives their own cutaway to profess their emotions:
“I love you, Dawn,” her father cries with hands outstretched.
“Me, too. I love you,” confesses her cold, nerdy older brother.
“Oh, Dawn, I love you,” coos Brandon, the classmate who threatens to rape Dawn several times throughout the film.
“Dawn, I love you,” emphasizes Steve, the 16-year-old heartthrob Dawn delusionally believes might go steady with her.
“Oh Dawn, we love you,” professes the entire student body.
Solondz abruptly cuts back to the dingy streets of New York City, Dawn sleeping against a metal grate. It was all just a dream; she is not a hero, she is not loved. She crosses the street and drowsily dials a payphone to call home.
“Boy, are you in trouble,” answers her brother Mark. It’s revealed—rather nonchalantly—that Missy was kidnapped by a neighbor and held in his makeshift underground bunker for a few days while he took surprisingly tame videos of her performing pirouettes in her leotard (the parallels to child pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey’s murder are strikingly eerie considering Dollhouse premiered at TIFF more than a year before the case). “You know, actually, I think she liked being there because she had her own TV and total control over the pusher,” says Mark. “She also got to eat as much candy and McDonald’s as she wanted.”
Without real risk or reward, Dawn slinks home from New York City, where all that awaits her is a humiliating speech on behalf of her recently-located sister and a class trip to Disney World (the land of hollow happiness and collective conceit) which she begrudgingly agrees to attend. Yet the presence of the city—its infinite imagined potential for redemption, recreation and restoration—is essential when crafting a film set in northern New Jersey. To me, the city always felt like a beacon just out of reach. In fact, my parent’s house in Bergen County was so close to my town’s NJ Transit stop that the house would subtly shake as a train passed by, cabinets and their contents gently rattling in sync with train schedules. While this feature undeniably lowers the property value (perhaps one of the reasons why my parents were able to afford to live in one of the most affluent counties in the U.S. in the first place), I always found great comfort in the sensation. It was a welcome reminder of just how close I was to the hustle and bustle of something bigger and far more exciting, ensuring me that it would be waiting for me whenever I was ready. Apparently, Todd Solondz—who also grew up in northern N.J.—felt exactly the same.
“I did grow up in New Jersey, although I suppose if I grew up in the suburbs of Ohio the experience wouldn’t have been so different; the only difference was that growing up in New Jersey you’re very close to New York, and that was always my Oz, my dream,” the filmmaker told NJ.com. “I couldn’t wait to get there.”
25 years after Welcome to the Dollhouse’s theatrical release and ten years after I saw the film for the first time as a teenager, I wonder if Solondz and I are truly released from the grip of New Jersey’s suburban savagery. I live in a three-bedroom apartment in Queens I can only afford with three other roommates, probably still as far away from Manhattan as my parent’s Bergen County home is. Solondz teaches at his alma mater NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, a program he describes as being “managed with wonderful incompetence.”
Whether or not my fellow New Jersey compatriot and I are truly better off residing some 20-odd miles away from the weird realm we were raised in, Dawn is unique in having been blessed by her creator with the opportunity to maneuver different life trajectories throughout Solondz’s filmography. In 2004’s Palindromes, it feels twisted to laugh at our beloved Dawn’s funeral, who kills herself in college after becoming obese and suffering a date-rape that resulted in pregnancy (not to mention she had little fighting chance as a middle child, anyway). Twelve years later, Solondz resurrected Dawn as a young adult vet technician played by Greta Gerwig who falls in love with Wiener-Dog’s titular pup. For those of us who have oscillated from wanting to die to wanting to love in desperate, equal bounds, this metamorphosis is not only apt—it rings a sort of sardonic truth emblematic of Solondz’s keenly sensitive yet soundly solemn cinematic worldview.
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.