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.