Offbeat, heartfelt, dark and hilarious with spot-on dialogue, this is a wonderful and freshly original depiction of s***ty life in the suburbs that makes you remember how middle school was actually one of the worst times of your life.
Dawn Wiener is played by a young Heather Matazzaro, who most of us probably know as Anne Hathaway's best friend with the cable show and hot brother from The Princess Diaries. Dawn is an unhappy loner in middle school, where the kids are genuinely cruel, but so are the teachers, families and parents, and even Dawn herself. It seems like everyone in this film is continuously cruel to one another, but not intentionally. Most of the time, it’s in reaction to someone else being cruel to them, which is perhaps true of how cruelty works in real life. Dawn repeats the names people call her at school to her spoiled younger sister Missy. Even Dawn’s bully (and love interest) Brandon McCarthy, is senselessly misogynistic and cruel in the way that only an insecure teenage boy could be. It’s not until we see his father that we get an idea of how he might’ve turned out the way he is.
Most of the film is Dawn getting kicked in the ass by life from all people in every direction, but she (out of bravery, resilience or maybe just stubborn, delusional optimism) keeps getting back up and trying, which makes it worthwhile to watch. This is a film about a bunch of miserable people going through a miserable, shitty time, but Solondz manages to find the wonderful, unexpected humor in the absurdness of it all, while maintaining a heart underneath. At its center, it’s simply about an awkward lonely girl who just wants to be loved (but isn’t.)
Side note: Brandon McCarthy is played by Brendon Sexton III, who four years after Dollhouse, also played Tom Nielson in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), one of the boys who raped and later killed Brandon Teena. After seeing an older, even more frightening image of Sexton as an actual rapist in Boys Don’t Cry, Brandon’s childish rape threats to Dawn, primarily intended to scare her, carry a heavier, eerie quality. As a character, Brandon shares a lot of qualities with Tom that makes us start to see, frighteningly, how a kid like Brandon, who isn’t really a bad kid, could eventually grow up to become someone like Tom, if put in the same circumstances.