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Dysfunction at the Dinner Table

by Mario Ventura

            In Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, we are presented with what we are supposed take as a typical American family – a mother, a father, and three children. The oldest, a teenager preoccupied with getting into a good college after high school, the middle child, who is dealing with puberty, and the youngest child, who is coddled. It is this very veneer of normalcy that Solondz uses to parody the stereotypical nuclear family that has been drilled in the collective consciousness of contemporary Americans.

The dysfunction that hides beneath the surface comes out during a staple of the nuclear family ideal – the dinner table when the whole family is gathered for the evening meal. We are introduced to the dinner table as Mark is talking to his parents about having convinced a popular classmate to join his band, enthusiastic about the “substantial extra-curricular activity” this entails. The camera slowly pans to Dawn who is silently mouthing the words “fuck you” repeatedly to her tutu-wearing little sister, Missy. Dawn’s behavior is symptomatic of the bullying she silently suffers at school, as well as the resentment that she has towards her younger sister for being so well liked. In fact, Dawn mimics one of her bullies in her attempts to torment her sister. Missy retaliates with what seems like a false air of naivety – she coyly asks if she can join Mark’s band, and then, without a change in intonation, suggests that Dawn should be sent to a reformatory for always bothering her. The way Missy handles the situation suggests that she is aware of her ability to manipulate her mother, and does so when necessary. This dysfunction peaks when Dawn rebels against her mother’s command that she stop bothering her sister (an accusation her mother took at face value). Her mother further demands that Dawn tell Missy she loves her (something Missy sheepishly obliged to when she was asked by her mother to tell Dawn the same). This leads to a great juxtaposition of the mother becoming enraged and punishing Dawn for not obeying an order to tell Missy she loves her – the idea that she is being punished for refusing to express her love to Missy seems like an absurd take on what a loving nuclear family should be like. Ironically, the dinner table is used as a form of punishment, with Dawn being forced to stay there until she obliges. Dawn sits in quiet anger until she is dismissed from the table hours after dinner is over.

Aside from the use of narrative alone, Solodz uses his shots to reinforce the dysfunction. Talk of SAT scores and Ivy League schools accompanies the shot of Dawn mouthing "fuck you" to Missy. He also isolates Dawn in her confrontation with her mother -- shots of Dawn during the argument have her as the only character on screen. Only when she is dismissed from the table  does a shot include both the mother and Dawn, which is indicative of the relationship they have.

In having the deconstruction of a loving nuclear family take place at the dinner table, Solondz accentuates the dysfunctions of the family – the unhealthy relationship between Dawn and Missy, her mother’s overtly preferential treatment of the latter, as well as the father’s non-involvement.

The Dysfunctional Table: Seating arrangement and the camera in Welcome to the Dollhouse

by Natasha Martin

Todd Solondz uses the relative placement of each member of the family around the dinner table in order to communicate more about their relationships. Each element of this scene contributes to the overall representation of dysfunction in the Wiener family. The seating arrangement and the camera shots provide additional information on the dynamic and dysfunction that affects the family.

The father is at the head of the table, which is generally thought of as a position of power, but he is also placed furthest from the camera in an area with a lot of shadows. His placement reinforces his non-involvement in family life. The mother is seated next to him, showing that that while he appears to be the head of the home, she is the one who really has the power. He cannot move to from his spot into the kitchen unless she allows him. She is also seated in front of the kitchen door which. shows her involvement in domestic life. Her placement shows the power she holds over the family, as she is the only one with access to the kitchen. She controls the food. Mark is seated across from her and Missy next to her, whereas Dawn is on a diagonal. This says a great deal about the relationship between each of these characters. Mark and Missy are closer and more directly connected to their mother, while Dawn is at an odd angle. 

The mother’s position in the family is also highlighted through the use of the camera. She is never shown alone, but when other characters of on screen she is often present. Solondz frequently uses two shots to show Missy and the father in conjunction with the mother.

The camera also provides information on the scene when Mark is discussing his band and the camera slowly moves from him to Dawn, as she is mouthing, “fuck you” to Missy. Here the camera shows that while the parents are focusing on Mark, they are ignoring what is happening between Dawn and Missy.

During a medium long shot where the entire family is visible, Dawn is shown to be looking down and playing with her food. The rest of the family is engaged with the setting and seem oblivious to Dawn.

The relationships we see here between the mother and Dawn and the mother and Missy are reinforced when Missy and Dawn disappear. When Missy disappears her mother is in hysterics, but when Dawn runs away to New York in an attempt to find Missy, her mother doesn’t even notice. Much like at the dinner table, Dawn is in the periphery of her mother’s life—she is not in her mother’s direct line of sight and thus her mother is oblivious to her existence. The same is true of the father and Mark, both of whom are concerned for Missy but oblivious to Dawn.

Tension: It's What's For Dinner

by Michelle Robinson

This clip by will be used to explore representations of the family meal in Todd Solondz’s films Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Palindromes, and Storytelling. Students will examine Solondz’s parodies of domestic and family ideals via scenes that depict his characters around the dinner table, an iconic site for representations of the family unit. Additional commentaries will be provided by students in the course “The Film Director as Public Intellectual” at UNC Chapel Hill (Spring 2012).

Welcome to the Dollhouse - Dawn's Family Dinner

This clip from director Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse shows the Weiner family at dinner.

from Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
Creator: Todd Solondz
Distributor: Columbia TriStar Home Video
Posted by Michelle Robinson