Todd Solonz is revisiting a character he first put on screen 20 years ago, writes Alistair Harkness
It’s been 20 years since Todd Solondz’s breakthrough movie Welcome to the Dollhouse marked him out as a provocative chronicler of American life and the misanthropic depths to which humanity can sink.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, the movie itself was a brutal black comedy about a shy, awkward, unpopular 12-year-old girl called Dawn Wiener who is repeatedly confronted by life’s cruelties and discovers that the misery of school can’t be solved with a trip to Disneyland. It was, in other words, defiantly un-Hollywood. It was also so painfully truthful about the realities of being an outcast – this was long before the term “geek” had been reclaimed as a badge of honour – that actress Heather Mattarazo made it clear she never wanted to play the character again (ironically, she ended up gearing her subsequent career towards an actual Disney-themed happy ending with a recurring role in The Princess Diaries movies).
Solondz evidently felt the same way about Dawn, imagining that she might have committed suicide in college and starting his 2004 film Palindromes with her funeral. Except now she’s back – sort of. In Solondz’s new film, Wiener-Dog, the character makes a return in the guise of indie queen Greta Gerwig, who plays Dawn as a happy-go-lucky 30-something veterinary nurse who briefly takes charge of the titular Dachshund that serves as a linking device between the four stories that make up the film as a whole. So what gives?
“Well, I didn’t see it like I was bringing her back to life,” says Solondz, on the phone from the Sundance London film festival. “I was just giving her another possible trajectory in life. I think that’s my prerogative as a filmmaker. I like the idea of different trajectories. I mean, it’s something that I dramatise at the end of this movie by having Ellen Burstyn’s character look at the alternative lives she could have lead.”
This shouldn’t surprise seasoned watchers of Solondz’s work. In the aforementioned Palindromes, eight actors of different ages, races and genders played the main character, Aviva (who also happened to be Dawn Wiener’s cousin). And, when Solondz decided to make a semi-sequel to his notorious paedophilia-themed Happiness, the resulting film, Life During Wartime, was done with an entirely new cast playing roles originated by the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker and Lara Flynn Boyle. This way of working is not a calculated attempt to create an extended Solondz cinematic universe. As he explains: “It’s just that with all the movies it’s possible that some characters will recur in some other incarnation.”
Dawn’s revival in Wiener-Dog is a case in point. Solondz really just wanted to make a dog movie. Not a regular dog movie in the tradition of Lassie, Rin Tin Tin or Marley and Me (though he does cite Benji as an inspiration), but more of a dog-based riff on Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, the French master’s heartbreaking study of humanity as measured against the fate of a donkey in rural France.
“It’s not really about the trials and tribulations of a dog,” elaborates Solondz. “The dog is really a conceit and is used as a sort of prism with which I can play with and explore lots of ideas and characters. I started writing the first piece of it and thought of the Dachshund and that made me want to bring Dawn Wiener back”.
“Wiener-Dog” was one of the many cruel nicknames directed at Dawn in Welcome to the Dollhouse, but the choice of breed seems tragically appropriate in other ways, inadvertently providing Solondz with a symbol of the unthinking cruelty that our own particular species repeatedly inflicts on the world. “The dog is of a breed that is remarkably mentally deficient,” he sighs. “Something I learned from making the movie was that in some sense the inbreeding that is used to preserve and heighten the appearance and the cuteness and the sheen of the animal comes at the expense of its intelligence.”
Solondz’s caustic worldview clearly hasn’t diminished, then. Even if the segment with Dawn – particularly as it reunites the character with her teenage tormentor, Brandon (now sympathetically played by Kieran Culkin) – hints at a more hopeful outcome, the other vignettes in the film feature the likes of Julie Delpy as a horribly blunt mother of a young cancer survivor and Danny DeVito as an embittered film school screenwriting teacher preaching various storytelling rules while desperately awaiting news from his agent about his own failed career. Solondz – who has himself taught film at New York University – cautions against reading too much into the latter segment, however. It wasn’t, he says, a way to skewer Hollywood or vent his own frustrations with the industry. “I’m not frustrated at all,” he surmises. “I’m really grateful I’ve been able to make all these movies.”
• Wiener-Dog is in cinemas from Friday.