Four years ago, in the comments section of a Bitch magazine article written as a tribute to Dawn Wiener — the long-suffering 11-year-old preteen protagonist of Todd Solondz’s 1995 cult classic Welcome to the Dollhouse — a depressing exchange took place. “I love how D. Wiener was so much her own person, despite the shit she took,” wrote one user named hunter. “I would love a ‘ten years later’ (or twenty) follow up … you know — to make us fellow ‘wiener girls’ laugh, and relate to the quirky and individualistic path she undoubtedly followed.”
“Um …” the user Kizzy replied, “she committed suicide.”
“Yeah, I killed her in Palindromes,” Todd Solondz said unapologetically when I got him on the phone to discuss his most beloved character and her strange resurrection in his latest film, Wiener Dog. Is Dawn Wiener dead or alive? It’s a complicated question since, as Solondz notes, the opening scene of 2004’s provocative Palindromes did indeed take place at her funeral. (In a subsequent scene, we learn of Dawn’s downright dismal fate: She became obese and, after suffering a date rape that resulted in pregnancy, she killed herself. Not exactly the “quirky” sequel that commenter had in mind, but then again, that’s Todd Solondz for you.)
The decision to kill off such a beloved character (and in such a harsh fashion) might seem cruel, but, as Solondz told The Believer in 2005, he was actually moved by how many people related to Dawn Wiener. Ironically, it even inspired him to write Palindromes. “So many people who saw the movie, no matter how different they were from one another, said the same thing. They said, ‘That was me! I was just like Dawn Wiener!’ And so I started wondering what it would be like to create a character who was played by different actors of widely varying types, what that might mean in terms of audience identification as well as sympathy for the character.”
The rest of Palindromes follows Dawn’s pregnant cousin Aviva, who — in a high-concept twist that viewers either loved or loathed — was played by eight different actors of varying ages, races, and genders throughout the film. Over the past two decades, Solondz has made a career of conducting these kinds of filmic science experiments — poking and prodding at our received notions of character and plot.
“As a filmmaker, I get to create other lives,” Solondz told me. “And I also get to create other lives’ other lives. Such that different actors, or the same actor, can reprise the part and take it in different ways. The idea of possible trajectories for our lives — different possibilities — is something that’s always moved me.”
Solondz’s most ambitious exercise in this kind of plurality was 2009’s Life During Wartime, a sequel to his controversial 1998 masterpiece Happiness, with all the same characters played by entirely different actors. Some of the recastings had a poignant, Hollywood-doppelganger poeticism — Jon Lovitz’s character became Paul Reubens; Lara Flynn Boyle was swapped out for Ally Sheedy — while others seemed more intentionally provocative (the sexually tormented prank caller initially played by Philip Seymour Hoffman was reprised by black actor Michael K. Williams). Watching the films in sequence produces an odd effect. In one sense, his approach heightens the artificiality of character; you are constantly aware of the gulf between the two actors who portrayed, say, Lovitz/Reubens’ Andy, and thus constantly reminded that you are watching a film. At the same time, as the boundaries of the characters become blurrier, it’s easier to enter their worldview and see something universal in them — a shared humanity that’s bigger than a single person.
Even so, when Solondz announced in late 2014 that the beloved Dawn Wiener would return in Wiener Dog, the news was, even for his standards, controversial. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn was portrayed by gawky-girl heroine Heather Matarazzo, but in Wiener Dog she returns in the corporeal form of … slightly less-gawky-girl heroine Greta Gerwig. Like most icons of tortured adolescents (Daria Morgendorffer comes to mind), Dawn Wiener is one of those characters who evokes strong emotions in those who identified with her. And — though their ire was based off a single publicity photo of the blonde, smiling, optimistic-looking Gerwig — not all of them were happy about this recasting.
“Honestly,” wrote one blogger at the website Birth Movies Death, “this feels like a betrayal. Dawn Wiener doesn’t grow up to become Greta Gerwig, even a Greta Gerwig done up ‘Hollywood ugly.’” Paper Magazine had a similar reaction. “While Greta’s talent is undeniable, there is ostensibly something far too pretty about her Dawn.”
I asked Solondz how he feels about these criticisms. “You know, I dramatized Dawn at a very difficult point in her life, 11, 12 years old,” he says of Dollhouse. “And so much can transpire over the next 20 years that there are so many different ways that she could have grown up. Whether she becomes, so-called, quote-unquote prettier, or less quote-unquote-pretty, there’s so many different ways. But a certain kind of sense of not belonging and of feeling at odds… those were qualities that I felt would stick with her over time, and that Greta could fulfill.”
Given Solondz’s penchant for recasting recurring characters, having Matarazzo revisit the role would have been uncharacteristically conventional. And anyway, as he puts it, “Heather made it clear she didn’t want to be an Antoine Doinel for me.”
So what’s the deal: Is Dawn Wiener dead or alive? “Ever since [Palindromes],” Solondz said, “I wanted to offer her another possible life trajectory. And this seemed like a perfect opportunity. I wanted to give her something a little sunnier and a little more hopeful.”
Solondz’s cinema occupies a prickly in-between space where cruelty and kindness — alienation and empathy — meet. It’s extreme version of the Rabbit or Duck phenomenon: Some people see a fuzzy bunny who just wants to cuddle with you, while others see a psychotic duck who is about to murder you. Wiener Dog won’t change any minds, but those who already see the bunny will probably find it to be the best thing he’s done in over a decade.
Formally, Wiener Dog is like Virginia Woolf’s first-person dog memoir Flush meets Vittorio De Sica’s man-and-dog tearjerker Umberto D. meets the wandering narrative of Richard Linklater’s Slacker. As the dog is passed from home to home, Solondz subtly explores class differences and finds some up-to-the-minute objects of his bitter satire: namely, millennials (Zozia Mamet plays Ellen Burstyn’s freeloading granddaughter) and the Whole-Foods-and-Pilates set (“Do you have enough granola bars?” Julie Delpy asks her young son before leaving him home alone, yoga mat slung over her shoulder).
Gerwig’s Dawn Wiener first appears as a veterinarian’s assistant at a clinic where our canine hero is about to be put down. She saves her life and busts out of the building with her in a scene that is almost as triumphant as Gerwig’s “Modern Love” sidewalk spree in Frances Ha. Dawn’s segment of the film is as close to fan service that Todd Solondz has ever come: Shortly after she nurses the dog back to health, she runs into none other than Brandon McCarthy (now played by Kieran Culkin), her loner-in-arms love interest from Dollhouse. And so Dawn Wiener gets another chance at life, and we — I-Am-Spartacus-style — get another chance of seeing ourselves in Dawn Wiener.
I told Solondz that his approach to the malleability of character and the realization of alternative possibilities has always struck me as kind of spiritual, reminiscent of the Buddhist idea of oneness. He said this isn’t exactly intentional, but that it’s not wrong, either. “For me, I’ll just say that it’s something that moves me, that stirs me, and haunts me.”
Speaking of haunting: Shortly after I picked up the phone, Solondz remarked, “You know, your last name looks like it’s almost related to my last name.” I told him I’d had the exact same thought a couple of times, especially since everyone tells me my last name is so unusual. “When my family came over from Poland,” he said. “I think our name initially began with a Z and then got changed to an S at Ellis Island.” Solondz and I spent a few moments tracing the known details of our ancestry to see if we’re distantly related, before we finally hit mutual walls in our knowledge and gave up, deciding that maybe we’ll never really know. Two possibilities hover: One in which I like Todd Solondz’s movies so much because we are actually distant cousins, and another in which this is nothing more than a weird coincidence. For some reason I can’t quite explain, I’m deeply stirred by this. It’s one of those fleeting moments when everything in the universe seems mysteriously connected, a bunch of possible alternatives materialize, and the notion that a bunch of wildly varied members of the human race — “pretty” or “unpretty” — can see something of themselves in a fictitious character named Dawn Wiener doesn’t sound so incredibly far-fetched.