Sundance Forever: How The Brutal ‘Welcome To The Dollhouse’ Helped A Generation Of Girls Grow Up

As the 2017 Sundance Film Festival rolls on, all this week we’ll be looking at the films that defined Sundance, why they still matter, and where their influence can still be felt.

One of the best films ever made about female adolescence, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, hinges on a rape joke: A bully informs his dorky classmate that he’s going to sexually assault her after school, and she dutifully shows up at the appointed time.

The puppyish juvenile delinquent Brandon (Brendan Sexton III) does ambush Heather Matarazzo’s 12-year-old pariah, Dawn “Wiener-Dog” Wiener, in their first encounter. But after she flees in fear, he calls her house, hurt that she ran off so quickly. “Tomorrow. Same time. Same place. You get raped,” he promises. “Be there.” When she saunters out of school the next day, he asks, “What time do you have to be home by?” They spend an emotional afternoon together. He tells her about his “retarded” brother, who he clearly loves more deeply than he can express. They kiss. She doesn’t get raped.

These days, you can be sure that awful and great films that wade into the ambiguities of consent, even between adults, will get taken to task as apologies for rape. But two decades ago, before “victim blaming” and “rape culture” had become household terms — or red flags for parents — tween girls fell in love with Welcome to the Dollhouse because it mirrored our own ambivalence about sex, family, and a social hierarchy we were just beginning to understand.

The film took a while to reach us, and it still feels like a miracle that such a strange, uncommercial creation ever generated enough momentum to end up in the hands of regular seventh graders. At first, even writer/director Solondz expected his brutally misanthropic comedy — working title: Faggots and Retards to fail. Instead, Dollhouse sold to Sony Pictures Classics after its debut at Toronto in 1995. The following January, it clinched Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize at a shopping spree of a festival that Down and Dirty Pictures author Peter Biskind dubbed “Ten Days That Shook the Indie World,” beating out a slate of now-classic indies that included Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking, Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol, Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth and Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s Big Night.

Dollhouse arrived in theaters that May. The limited release grossed $4.6 million in the US, on a budget of just $800,000, but along with its R rating, the film’s confinement to the arthouse suggested that its distributor didn’t see girls Dawn’s age as its primary audience. So we discovered it at the video store, where its heroine gazed out hungrily from a wall of bright-red VHS covers that spelled out “Welcome to the Dollhouse” in the same magazine cut-out lettering we used in our own chain letters and slam books. The movie made such a strong impression on a friend of mine that she copied down the dialogue from a scene where Dawn’s older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) explains that her new crush, dreamy Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius), will hook up with any girl who’s willing to put out, and made me run lines with her over the phone.

Even in the years before any whiff of perceived rape apology would’ve rendered Dollhouse unfit for preteen consumption, this was not the kind of movie girls were supposed to love. Then, as now, we were supposed to embrace sentimental friendship stories like Now and Then and updated fairy tales like Ever After — and we did, but they didn’t burrow into our lives like Dollhouse. With a minimal plot that chronicled a bullied freak’s parade of public humiliations, clumsy sexual awakening and the sudden unraveling of the Wiener family, who initially seem more at home than Dawn in the plasticky suburban hellscape they inhabit, the film resonated with us because it could have been a slice of our own boring yet anxious lives.

Which isn’t to say that Dawn’s fragile relationship with Brandon, who can’t figure out how to express his affection for her without violence, romanticized rape for us— or that we were all curious enough about sex, desperate enough for male attention, or socially isolated enough to consider rape threats a valid form of courtship. We were just familiar enough with those dark feelings to recognize the authenticity of Brandon’s misogyny and Dawn’s self-hatred. She was less a reflection of who we actually were than of the constant confusion we felt, desperate to embody ideals of adult femininity that we didn’t yet understand, our every misstep policed by our savvier peers. And then there was the fact that we heard more terrifying stories than hers daily, through the seventh-grade grapevine. Looking back on Dollhouse last year, Matarazzo told The Guardian, “I thought it was a PG version of what happened in junior high.”

In that respect, Solondz’s bleak outlook and affinity for button-pushing are less remarkable than the depth of his insight into girl culture. Drawing on his own memories of 1970s suburbia while in his thirties, Solondz conjured a vision of mid-’90s female adolescence whose verisimilitude was nothing short of eerie. Dawn’s inability to comprehend mysterious practices like “finger-fucking,” her glittery shrine to Steve, the way she mistakes his narcissistic enjoyment of her attention for genuine interest — all of these details could’ve come straight out of the diary of any girl I knew.

What we didn’t talk about was how real it felt that Dollhouse’s middle-school outcasts were so willing to sell each other out. The film begins with an archetypal coming-of-age scene: Dawn carries her tray through the cafeteria, searching frantically for a friendly table before finally taking a seat across from a mopey goth named Lolita (Victoria Davis). But when a flock of cheerleaders arrives to ask Dawn if she’s a lesbian, Lolita tells them, “She made a pass at me.” Later, Dawn, who’s no less cruel than any other kid, dispatches with her prim friend Ralphy (Dimitri DeFresco) by pronouncing, “He’s a spy and a faggot….I hope he rots in hell.”

It was the women who found Dollhouse as kids who sanctified poor, all-too-human Dawn in the 21st century, with our eulogies and homemade talismans, and paeans in song. But the film had already made a profound impact on independent and teen cinema by the time we were old enough to canonize it. Dollhouse’s black humor inspired Roger Kumble to make Cruel Intentions, the arch, prep-school reimagining of Dangerous Liaisons that became a blockbuster in 1999. The same year brought a raft of dark films about teenage girls, many of them made outside the studio system: But I’m a Cheerleader!, Jawbreaker, Election, The Virgin Suicides, Drop Dead Gorgeous.

Meanwhile, Darren Aronofsky told Biskind that when he saw Dollhouse at Sundance, as a student, he “thought it was such a unique, weird film, that it really gave [him] the courage to go back to New York and just try to throw something together.” Two years and $68,000 later, he returned to the festival—and won its Directing Award—with Pi.

Dawn Wiener cast a long, gawky shadow over Solondz’s filmography, too. He’d taken several years off from filmmaking after his first feature, 1989’s Fear, Anxiety & Depression, flopped. Dollhouse’s success made it a permanent career, securing a famous cast and a $3 million budget for his next project, Happiness which cemented his reputation as the decade’s most scathing suburban satirist in 1998.

When his movies took a turn for the self-referential, Dawn reappeared. Not only does 2004’s Palindromes begin at her funeral, but Solondz got the idea to cast multiple actors as its protagonist, Dawn’s cousin Aviva, from fans’ intense identification with Dollhouse. “So many people who saw the movie, no matter how different they were from one another, said the same thing. They said, ‘That was me! I was just like Dawn Wiener!’” he recalled in a Believer interview. (Apparently, even Cindy Crawford confessed to seeing herself in Dawn.) “I started wondering what it would be like to create a character who was played by different actors of widely varying types, what that might mean in terms of audience identification as well as sympathy for the character.”

When Dawn returned in Solondz’s most recent film, last year’s Wiener-Dog, it wasn’t as a ghost of the pregnant, obese college girl whose suicide Palindromes mercilessly recounted. This alternate-universe Dawn is a gentle vet tech, played with charming residual awkwardness by a bespectacled Greta Gerwig, who gets another chance at love with Brandon. “I wanted to offer her another possible life trajectory,” Solondz explained to The Ringer. “I wanted to give her something a little sunnier and a little more hopeful.”

Maybe that’s a sign of Solondz softening in his 50s, but it also sounds like an acknowledgment that he hasn’t really owned Dawn Wiener since he shipped her off to Blockbuster on the cover of all those VHS boxes. She belongs the girls who welcomed her into their homes, memorized her lines and grew up loving her for being so unlovable.

Sundance Forever continues tomorrow with a look back at the seismic shock created by The Blair Witch Project. Check out our previous entries on sex, lies, and videotape and Reservoir Dogs.