I once read that the director, Todd Solondz, originally wanted to call this movie “Faggots and Retards,” which probably was discouraged in the ultra politically correct era it came out in. He could have used “Freaks and Geeks,” because this was four years before the TV series, but it wouldn’t have been accurate, as the main character, eleven-year-old Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) doesn’t fit into either category. So he went with “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” which is the name of a song in the movie, and also captures the claustrophobia of American middle-class suburbia and junior high in which it’s set.
Most Hollywood movies starring outcasts dangle some form of redemption for their hero or heroine, whether it be a really rocking makeover, a new kid-in-town turned soulmate, an inspirational teacher or respect from peers following a victory or an impromptu speech. Not here, however. Heather’s character, nicknamed predictably “Weiner Dog,” is an outcast in her family and school, and things don’t change over the course of the film. Like Jan Brady, only without the promise of becoming a knockout, she’s the middle child, trapped between her geeky older brother (Matthew Faber), and adorable younger sister (Daria Kalinina). The brother probably finds the situation as intolerable as Heather, but has a plan – to assemble an impressive enough resume to go to a good college, while the sister dreams of becoming a ballerina, though she’s already basking securely in her mother’s favor. Heather, however, is saddled with glasses, a highly unflattering wardrobe, middling marks and no real plan for escaping triumphant – the most she hopes for is to make it through middle school alive. As for her relationship with her parents – well, Harry Potter had a comparable time with the Dursleys, even before he turned out to be a wizard.
Heather does have one friend, an effeminate younger boy (Dimitri DeFresco), with whom they form the “Special People Club” (and it’s meant un-ironically). There’s also a boy her age (Brendan Sexton III), who threatens to “rape” her after school – though what actually occurs is not anything close. After the characters sling around the term “retard,” for awhile, it turns out that Brendan actually has an older brother with special needs, but the movie avoids veering off into After School Special Land. Instead, we get Heather falling head over heels for her brother’s garage bandmate (Eric Mabius), who is the lead vocalist and who, while not encouraging, is not exactly discouraging of Heather’s attentions. In the third half of the movie, there’s a kidnapping and Heather runs away from home, but neither winds up producing lasting damage. Rather it confirms that Heather will always come in second to her sister. The movie ends with Heather on a glee club trip to Disney World, of all places, but she’s distinctly unthrilled about it. Perhaps her pessimism on the bus in the last scene is actually due to her brother explaining that things don’t really get better in high school – people still call you names, he says, but not so much to your face.
There is hardly any “Welcome to the Dollhouse” fanfiction floating around the Internet, but perhaps that’s because the director actually answers the question of what happens to Heather’s character after graduation in a later movie, “Palindromes.” She dies. But given what happens to characters in his movies who do stay alive, perhaps she is better off.