Nerd Mentality

Misfit kids--nerds, loners, class clowns--have a rough time of it in school, but for many of them, the ultimate payoff is considerable: They sometimes get to grow up to be rock stars, novelists, Nobel laureates, stand-up comedians, computer tycoons and, of course, filmmakers. (The luckiest of them get to be film critics, and sleep in and watch movies all week while the guys who beat them up in high school are slaving in machine shops, if they're employed at all.)

This is the true revenge of the nerds, but sweet as it is, it doesn't prevent them from whining about how hard it was not to be popular back in their hall-pass-and-Clearasil days. Thus the "alienated youth" movie genre never completely disappears. Since the early '80s, its strongest voice has been John Hughes, a writer-director whose early works--Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science--while often charming and imaginative, basically reaffirm the importance of high school popularity by having a "misfit"--a safe, middle-class idea of a misfit, frequently played by Molly Ringwald--attain it rather than ignore it.

Two new films centering on youthful misfits make Hughes' conception of the type look like Leave It to Beaver. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, the heroine, a junior high girl, is a loner against her will. She badly wants acceptance and popularity, and two minutes in her presence tells you she's just not going to get it, at least not in junior high. In The Young Poisoner's Handbook, the hero is a teenage boy who cultivates his outsider status because it frees him for his scientific studies--which include experimentation on unwitting human guinea pigs. Weird science, indeed.

All through Welcome to the Dollhouse, I was on the edge of my seat. The 11-year-old heroine, Dawn Wiener (pronounced like the sausage), lives a life of almost unremitting junior high misery in the New Jersey suburbs. She's mercilessly teased and abused by her schoolmates, girls and boys alike, who universally call her "Wiener Dog." At home things are, if anything, worse.

For me, the suspense rose not from the hope that Dawn would find a way to triumph, but from the hope that the young writer-director, Todd Solondz, wouldn't allow her to triumph. Dawn's sufferings are such that they deserve a far greater redress than a cheap Sixteen Candles-style apotheosis, a redress well beyond the scope of junior high, and thus of the film.

Dawn's parents are plainly disappointed in her homeliness and make no secret that they favor her little sister Missy (Daria Kalinina), a conventionally pretty child given to capering around the yard in a pink tutu. Missy is not as insipid as she appears, however. She's adept at tattling and making Dawn look bad. Dawn's big brother Mark (Matthew Faber) is a monotonal nerd who has focused his whole life on getting into a good college. He's given up on his childhood. Even when he forms a garage band, it's not for fun; it's so he'll have an extracurricular activity for his college resume.

Dawn becomes smitten with the lead singer of Mark's band, a good-looking doofus of a high school boy (Eric Mabius). He's completely indifferent to her, of course, but he treats her with a casual pleasantness that's closer to kindness than any other treatment she receives. The other boy in Dawn's life is a slit-eyed badass-wanna-be type (Brendan Sexton Jr.) who orders her to meet him after school so he can rape her. Dawn, seeing no better chance of getting attention anytime soon, meekly complies.

Misfit school kids are forever being sentimentalized in the movies, but Solondz is having none of it. Dawn isn't some paragon of nonconformity--she flatly states her ambition: "I want to be popular." She tries Missy's tactics, but for her they don't work: She tells on the would-be rapist, who's trying to copy her test, and she gets kept in detention with him. Out of pure meanness, she knocks a ball out of the hands of a little kid she passes on the street. She dismisses the one frail little boy who really wants to be her friend as a "faggot."

In spite of such callous adolescent rottenness, Dawn suffers far more than she inflicts, and is finally an extremely likable character. This is, partly, because of the wonderfully unaffected acting of Heather Matarazzo, but to a great extent, it's because of how valiantly Solondz (who, in photographs, amazingly resembles his young star) resists the urge to cut his young heroine a break. His style crosses the comically obscene vigor of John Waters (Hairspray) with the deadpan formalism of Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth), and he uses it relentlessly to grind down every attempt that Dawn makes to assert herself. Episode after episode of Welcome to the Dollhouse builds toward a shot of Dawn, standing or sitting stock-still, fists clenched, chin upraised, paralyzed with the helpless rage that only an adolescent can truly know.

The film relentlessly keeps Dawn defeated, frustrated and humiliated, and it's terribly funny--terrible because her tribulations are real, funny because it is, after all, just junior high and survivable. Superficially, it may seem like a mere exercise in cruelty, but if you acknowledge that the structure of power and rank behind junior high "popularity" is a sort of basic training in societal evil, then Solondz is being cruel to be kind. If he allowed Dawn any relief or acceptance--if she became a hero, or won a guy's heart--it would be a validation of junior high mores.

Besides, Dawn's alienation is so comically exaggerated that it allows us a certain amount of distance. Many of us got picked on in high school--if Dawn thinks "Wiener Dog" is rough, she should consider the possibilities a name like "Moorhead" offered to high school wags--but Dawn also has no emotional support at home, and absolutely no real friends (that she wants). She can't even claim the sour-grapes comfort of not caring about popularity--she does. It's this tough-mindedness that, for me, paradoxically makes Welcome to the Dollhouse much less depressing than such fantasy-fulfillments as, say, Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club or even Michael Lehmann's Heathers, films which at some level accept the high school caste system at face value, and the status of "misfit" as one which can (and should) be struggled against (even if, as in Heathers, it's by murder).

If Dawn is to find any fulfillment in her life, it won't be in cheap junior high terms. Solondz gives Dawn wretched fictional parents, but he is a good aesthetic parent to her--he won't give her what's bad for her, no matter how badly she wants it, and no matter how badly we may want it for her.

On the other hand, there can be a dark side to completely embracing the identity of adolescent loner. The Young Poisoner's Handbook, from the debuting young Brit director Benjamin Ross, explores the line where nonconformity becomes sociopathy. Graham Young (Hugh O'Conor) cares no more about his schoolmates, family and co-workers than about so many lab rats--or, perhaps, he's filled with so much repressed hatred toward them that he expresses it by treating them as rats.

Young was a real person, and elements of the story derive from his case, but the treatment here is largely fictitious. His obsession with chemistry begins in childhood, and turns into a fixation with poisons--especially a compound called thallium--by his teen years, in the '50s. He poisons his stepmum over an agonizing period of weeks, making it resemble the onset of a mysterious illness. Then, unhappy that his skill as a poisoner will go unrenowned, he contrives to be caught.

While confined to an asylum, he bamboozles a well-meaning shrink (Anthony Sher) into thinking he's cured, and is released. By now a young adult, Graham goes to work in a photographic-processing firm, where one of the chemicals used is none other than his old pal thallium.

O'Conor, best remembered for his brilliant work as the young version of Christy Brown in My Left Foot, is a study in calculation as Graham. His enormous eyes look stereoscopic, like a chameleon's, and they take in the world around him with a focus and an alertness that are alarming. Again and again, Ross shows us Graham walking straight at the camera as he tracks backward, and the effect is frighteningly aggressive--unlike Dawn Wiener, Graham knows what to do with his anger. At times, during his analysis, Graham experiences a genuine emotion like remorse or sadness, and even this manifestation of his own humanity he regards only as an interesting phenomenon to be studied, and used to his advantage.

The appeal of the alienated-youth genre is universal, more or less--hardly anyone had perfectly happy, carefree teen years, or if they did, they don't want to admit it, because it's like admitting allegiance to the forces that wrote "Wiener Dog" on Dawn's locker. But most films of this sort offer the cathartic triumph of an underdog. The Young Poisoner's Handbook and Welcome to the Dollhouse do something stronger: They give underdogs their due, not by whitewashing them but by allowing them to be complex characters.

Welcome to the Dollhouse:
Directed by Todd Solondz; with Heather Matarazzo, Matthew Faber, Victoria Davis, Daria Kalinina, Eric Mabius and Brendan Sexton Jr.

Rated R.

The Young Poisoner's Handbook:
Directed by Benjamin Ross; with Hugh O'Conor, Ruth Sheen, Anthony Sher, Roger Lloyd Pack, Charlotte Coleman and Jean Warren.


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