(director/writer: Todd Solondz; cinematographers: Randy Drummond/Gabor Szitany; editor: Alan Oxman; cast: Heather Matarazzo (Dawn Wiener), Victoria Davis (Lolita), Matthew Faber (Mark Wiener), Christina Vidal (Cynthia), Bill Buel (Mr. Wiener), Angela Pietropinto (Mrs. Wiener); Runtime: 88; Suburban; 1996)

“Solondz knows his subject well, he is able to understand and convey what it is like to be brought up with self-hatred.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A film about an unpopular girl named Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) who can’t fit in with her seventh-grade classmates. She wants so much to be like them and to have them love her that she is willing to do just about anything to fit in, even be raped by the school bully. She goes by the name of “Dogface Weiner” to her cruel schoolmates who also tauntingly call her a “lesbo,” which she stammers out is not so. Solondz pulls no punches pointing out the utter futility of adolescence for someone like her, who can’t help being a nerd and who receives no emotional support from home. Heather, in fact, looks a lot like the director. So we can only guess that some of these horrible experiences are something that might have happened to him in puberty. This loner theme is belabored and beaten into the story so much so, that the obvious couldn’t be made more obvious. There are no subtle messages. There is, also, no revenge of the nerds, or any analytical probes into what she can do about her low self-esteem (and I am most grateful for that). This is simply a film that looks at why schools, for the most part, impart no concern about “culture” in the children they teach, and why they can’t respond with civility and intelligence to those students who need the most help that they can get. Heather is so beaten down that she just wants to gain some self-esteem from her school experience, any kind of encouragement would have been enormously helpful.

What sums up Heather’s situation and is her main concern is best discerned in this conversation with her classmate, when she asks “Why do you hate me?” And, the response is given so bluntly: “Because you are so ugly.”

Heather’s home life is filled with bitterness. The parents are cardboard caricatures of an unperceptive modern couple. They are a successful New Jersey suburbanite household who dote on Heather’s cute younger sister, leaving Heather out in the cold. They respect but do not love their high school son, who is also a nerd but is able to function very well in school and has even gone as far as repressing his sexual drive so that he can be concerned only with getting good marks in school and thereby getting into a top college. The brother acts more like he was an adult than a teenager; even the rock band he starts is not a rebellious one, but he does it because it will look good on his resume for college.

For Heather her parents simply have no understanding or love to offer; she is reduced to either trying to be a child again by retreating to a clubhouse in her backyard, or trying to foolishly hang out with an older high schooler who sometimes plays in her brother’s band. In any case, whatever she does seems pathetic and even though she is very smart, she does not do well in school.

Since the film sinks or swims depending on how credible Heather is in depicting this unhappy youngster role, it is safe to say that she fitted the role perfectly. The film was intense when it zoomed in on Heather’s travails, but lost something when it brought unnecessary action into play such as child kidnapping and the problem of drugs being sold in school. There was no place to go in developing Heather’s character by adding these major criminal and societal problems to Heather’s story, that’s for another film.

You would think with Heather being a victim of persecution that would ensure that she’s kind to others who are picked on. But that is not the case, she shows a mean streak to others beneath her in the food chain when it suits her fancy; for example, hurting the vulnerable young kid she stays with in the clubhouse when she unnecessarily calls him “a faggot.” Heather acts abusive as do many children raised by abusive parents, raising their kids in a never-ending pattern of poor parenting.

Solondz knows his subject well, he is able to understand and convey what it is like to be brought up with self-hatred. It is an unusual movie and it focuses on a subject very few filmmakers have chosen to do.

It was unfortunate that Heather never evolved, so the cruelty we observed in the beginning of the film was also the way she was observed when the film ended.

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