This is a very funny comedy about the indomitable spirit of an 11-year-old junior high school girl, Dawn Wiener, played with geekish verve by Heather Matarazzo, who overcomes real life horrors the likes of which would make war heroes shutter. How would you like to be courted by a guy whose pick up line is 'I'm going to rape you at three o'clock. Be there.'? Or have a mother who splits your chocolate cake in front of your watering eyes into two pieces and adds them to the plates of your brother and sister? Or have your dream lover tell you he can't be a member of your Special People Club because it's 'a club for retards'?
It gets worse. You're taunted daily by choruses of 'Wiener Dog!' and 'Lesbo freak!' and bullied at school by everybody including some teachers and the principal. And at home, your siblings tear down your club house. And when you're missing from home for a day and phone home, you're told to call back later, mom and your spoiled little sister are mugging for the TV cameras.
Ah, but Dawn can overcome the night. She turns the would-be rapist into a macho-posturing little boy who really only wants to be affectionate ('I make the first move!' he boasts) and demonstrates that no matter how hard they hit her, she'll be back tomorrow, undaunted.
Matarazzo does a great job, but she isn't alone. Brenden Sexton stands out as the posturing macho boy who loves her but can't admit it, as does Eric Mabius playing Steve Rogers, the self-absorbed high schooler/rock star wanna be (and Dawn's first love). The rest of the cast is also good, especially Victoria Davis in a bit part as the foul-mouthed, sexually ambiguous 12-year-old Lolita who corners Dawn in the bathroom. Incidentally that scene in which Lolita slyly tells Dawn 'You didn't come in here to wash your hands,' and insists that she do what she intended to do is just a great piece of pre adolescent camp. Another fine (and subtle) scene is when Dawn in her bedroom hears Steve Rogers sing for the first time (in the garage with her brother's 'band'). The expression on her face, as she rises up enthralled and follows the sound, suggests someone in the throes of a first awakening. And I loved the bit where Dawn, after being told by one of Steve Rogers's ex-girl friends that they 'finger-...(you-know-what)' one night and that was all, is inspired to demonstrate her finger work on the piano to Steve and then to show him her hands, fingers spread so he can see them. Of course he hasn't a clue to what she's thinking--and we're not too sure either!
Now some people may think there is some exaggeration here, and they're right. I mean, nobody wears a pirate's black eye patch after getting hit in the eye with a spit ball! And teachers, even bad ones, know better than to deliberately humiliate their students (although some do it unconsciously). Nonetheless, while the action may not be entirely realistic at times, its spirit is totally true. Just ask anybody who remembers junior high school. Which brings me to the question: how did director and script writer, Todd Solondz, get it so right? Did he take notes when he was still in junior high to use when he grew up? Did he steal his daughter's diary? Clearly somebody lived this script. I'm guessing that 'Dawn' is 'Todd' at least in spirit, and the striking capture of the psychology of the world of being twelve-years-old is due to his having been there and done that, 'big time,' as is written on Dawn's locker.
Whatever, this full color world of the middle child is an adorable, witty, psychologically honest, beautifully directed and edited, masterfully conceived entertainment, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, 1996, and sure to steal your heart.
Final irony: this is a movie for and about 12-year-olds (it would appear) yet it is rated 'R' and so, in effect, junior high school life is not only 'not suitable' for those under thirteen, they can't even view it!
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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