Rob Edelman: Bullying

BULLY, a new documentary whose title tells you all you need to know about its subject matter, has been earning reams of publicity– and deservedly so. For one thing, the Motion Picture Association of America, the organization charged with rating movies, originally slapped BULLY with an “R” rating. This designation would prevent countless young people who need to be educated about the effects of bullying from seeing this important film. (Happily, the MPAA has indeed changed the film’s rating to “PG-13.”)

 But amid all this hoopla, it would be helpful to be reminded that BULLY is not the first film to explore the impact of tormenting young people who are “different.” Far from it. One extraordinary example is WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, directed by Todd Solondz, a proudly independent feature which dates from 1995.

Its scenario focuses on an 11-year-old New Jersey girl named Dawn Wiener, wonderfully played by Heather Matarazzo. Dawn is a classic Plain Jane. She is an awkward, gawky kid who wears thick glasses and is the recipient of continual 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.” “Why do you hate me,” Dawn asks one girl. “Because you’re ugly,” is the direct, heart-piercing response. Dawn also must contend with Brandon, a troubled young punk who goes so far as to tell her that he is going to rape her. But Dawn is not the sole recipient of abuse. Troy, her one friend and male equivalent, is beaten up by bigger, tougher boys.

Dawn Wiener clearly has no allies in the adult world. There are no teachers with whom she can seek comfort and support, and her mother is cruelly insensitive to her plight. The fact is that Dawn may not be the most likable kid, but does she deserve to be treated so harshly? She is, after all, a human being. Furthermore, how is she expected to respond to her tormentors? What is she expected to do with her feelings, and the anger that is slowly building within her?

If WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE were a Hollywood film, a superficially happy solution likely would be offered for Dawn. She would be put in the position of performing some heroic act, which would win her mother’s love and allow her to become her school’s most popular student. Or she would mature into a pretty teenager. She would remove her glasses and in so doing become an attractive young woman. The handsomest, most desirable boy in school would ask her to the prom.

But Dawn, just as real-life 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. This is what makes WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE such a refreshing and relevant film.

At the film’s finale, Todd Solondz is not at all finished with Dawn Wiener. Solondz opens PALINDROMES, his 2004 feature, with the funeral of Dawn Wiener– and we learn that Dawn has committed suicide!

Yes indeed, WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE and BULLY would make a powerful double-bill.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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