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Rob Edelman: Todd Solondz, Wiener-Dog, And More

Upon first hearing the title WIENER-DOG, written and directed by Todd Solondz, one of the most idiosyncratic and fiercely independent American filmmakers of the past two decades, I was immediately reminded of WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, his breakthrough feature, which dates from 1995. WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE remains a brilliant film, not just one of the best of its year but a top film of its decade.

But first, a word about WIENER-DOG. Here, in four vignettes, Solondz charts the urban, suburban, and rural-American odyssey of a dachshund, spotlighting its array of owners. To refer to WIENER-DOG as a despairing film, arguably the most downbeat of Solondz’s career, would be no exaggeration. However, WIENER-DOG is crammed with piercing insight into the transience of life and the disappointments one may feel as one ages. Plus, it offers a pair of veteran actors, Ellen Burstyn and particularly Danny De Vito, their best roles in years. I would not want to describe the plights of their characters in any way because that would be giving too much away. But WIENER-DOG is well-worth seeing and pondering for the presences and performances of Burstyn and De Vito.   

At the same time, the release of WIENER-DOG calls for a reassessment of WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, a film whose content is as timely as ever. Its scenario focuses on an 11 year old suburban New Jersey girl named Dawn Wiener, who is wonderfully played by Heather Matarazzo. Dawn is a textbook plain Jane. She is an awkward kid who wears thick glasses and is the recipient of endless abuse from her peers. In WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, Solondz vividly captures the sheer insensitivity of children, as Dawn’s schoolmates cruelly chide her by calling her “lesbo”-- and “wiener-dog.” “Why do you hate me,” Dawn asks one girl. “Because you’re ugly,” is the direct, heart-piercing response. Plus, she has no allies in the adult world. There are no teachers with whom she can seek comfort, and she is at the constant mercy of her insensitive mother.

Yet despite her predicament, Dawn yearns to be popular, grasping onto the fantasy that this might somehow come to pass. And at the same time she must contend with Brandon, a troubled punk who is her own age and who goes so far as to tell her that he is going to rape her. (Let me add here that Dawn and Brandon also are characters in WIENER-DOG. In the new film, Dawn is played by Greta Gerwig.)

In WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, the fact is that the younger Dawn may not be the most likable kid. But does she deserve to be treated so cruelly? She is, after all, a human being. Furthermore, how is she expected to act? What is she supposed to do with her feelings, and the anger which slowly builds within her?

If WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE was a Hollywood film, a superficially happy solution would be offered to Dawn. She would perform some heroic act, which would earn her mother’s respect and allow her to become her school’s most popular student. Or she would mature into a pretty teenager. She would remove those glasses and in so doing become an attractive young lady, and the handsomest boy in school would ask her to the prom. But Dawn, just as so many real-world children like her, does not exist in a Hollywood fantasy. There are no easy solutions for her, nor are there for Brandon (who transcends his role as one-dimensional nemesis, evolving into a complex character who is as much an outsider as Dawn). And this is what makes WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE such a touching and refreshing film, one that is ripe for rediscovery.

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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