This takes the crown from Lady Macbeth as the most unpleasant film I’ve seen so far this year, however, Todd Solondz uses this unpleasantness to more compelling ends. The film is very much like a typical American teen high-school comedy, except its not particularly funny and literally everyone in the film is a total dick, creating a bleak portrait of middle America and a girl who’s fallen through the cracks. The film is classified as a dark comedy, and whilst certainly dark, to me, calling it a comedy feels reminiscent of Synecdoche New York‘s branding as ‘the smash hit comedy of the year’, when in actuality it feels about as far from a comedy as possible. Welcome to the Dollhouse does have a definite comedic tone throughout, in the form of the same incongruous, disaffected, ironic humour that was prevalent in the 90s, but the themes were too dark and I felt too bad for the protagonist Dawn to find any of it funny.
Solondz’s take on junior high is ultimately pretty nihilistic, definitely more so than any other high school films I can think of, he plays on audience expectations of these types of films and subverts them, keeping his characters in stasis. There’s a sense of momentum in the film that is never fulfilled, transitions between scenes are scored with jaunty rock and roll music that builds and then kind of just stops. The first time this music comes in is over a shot of Dawn sat on her bed, the music creates the impression that she’s going to spring up and enact some sort of plan, but she doesn’t, the music ends and the scene cuts. This feels fairly emblematic of the film as a whole, throughout, the audience expects some character journey or growth, or some change in status, I was personally hoping for a Carrie moment where she flips and kills everyone but none of this ever comes to fruition. This nihilistic world view is best articulated by Dawn’s brother who when asked if the next grade is better replies saying it sucks too, as does the year after, as does Junior High as a whole.
I said earlier that everyone in this film was horrible, that was no exaggeration, literally everyone is just the worst, even Dawn isn’t particularly likable. This portrayal of Dawn is really interesting as a typical high school movie would almost certainly try harder to make her sympathetic and likable but that wouldn’t be true to life. Dawn is a product of a family who consistently put her down and openly favour her siblings and a school environment where she is incessantly bullied and has one student frequently telling her he’s going to rape her. Its no surprise she has a hard shell and is seen using some of the same bullying techniques that are used on her on others though to little success. The other characters in the film all fit into archetypal roles, including one of the worst mothers I’ve ever seen on film, but these stereotypes work due to the film’s tone and the fact that it’s being shown through the eyes of a young teen in a community where popularity is key.
The characters might not be innately believable in a real world context and some of the events that occur are hopefully far from the norm, but despite these heightened aspects and offbeat tone, it feels bleakly realistic. I can’t say I enjoyed this film nor would I go around recommending it to people, but its very interesting on a number of levels ultimately a great and subversive look in to high school life.