Independent films are those which defy the conventions of traditional Hollywood cinema. ‘Smart’ independent films share an “aura of intelligence” that distinguish them even more from the perceived “dross of the mainstream multiplex”. Smart films can be seen as those with a shared set of stylistic, narrative, and thematic elements, though these are often deployed in differing configurations by each individual work. These films often portray narratives and themes that are relatable to all of us, and this essay looks at smart films’ approach to teenage-hood and adolescence. Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Diary of a Teenage Girl present two young female protagonists (Dawn is 11-years-old and Minnie is 15.) They both feel trapped as a result of their ages and attempt to break free from the constraints placed upon them; whilst also dealing with sibling rivalry, oppressive parents, and their first loves. Dawn and Minnie are both at ages where they are very self-conscious and hyper-sensitive. This provides the films with moments of humiliation and affection and they even address topics of a disturbing nature. The two protagonists often feel alienated from those around them – a notion which smart films frequently address – as a result of their adolescence. Dollhouse and Diary can both be categorised as smart and quirky films through their implementation of comedy, melodrama, and blankness and through the topics they tackle.
In Dollhouse, after being bullied by her peers and her teacher, Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) runs up to the fencing surrounding her school in a visual representation of her desire to escape. The accompanying music becomes somewhat of a ‘theme’ of hers; it is played several times through the film at moments where Dawn is on a mission of some sort, or when she is feeling particularly frustrated. The track is comprised of an electric guitar and drums and is rocky in tone; not unlike the songs that her brother Mark’s band (attempt to) play. The genre of music is typically used in films to resemble rebellion or trouble-making in conventional teenage movies and is implemented to emphasise Dawn’s own rebellious nature. However, Dawn’s physical appearance, dress, and speech contrast starkly with the tone of the music. In using this track as her theme, Solondz suggests her attempts to reject adolescence are in vain. This juxtaposition distances the audience from Dawn, and gives the film a nihilistic tone. Additionally, by choosing a track similar to those Mark and his band begin to play once Steve (the stereotypical “cool guy” who begrudgingly joins the band in return for tutoring from Mark, and naturally becomes Dawn’s love interest) has joined the band, Solondz emphasises Dawn’s feelings for Steve to the audience. This childlike obsession, highlighted by the shrine Dawn makes Steve, reflects how young and immature she is; further distancing her ability to escape adolescence. Dollhouse rejects Hollywood clichés and turns the genre of teenage-hood films on its head with its nihilistic view of adolescence and growing up.
The quirky or smart film is often closely related to the comedic; it may “fuse comedy and melodrama very intimately”. Indisputably Dawn’s awkward or humiliating moments are often linked with elements of comedy in order to confuse the audience, leaving them unsure if they should sympathise with Dawn or laugh at her like the other characters. Another obvious marker of smart film’s relationship with comedy is the number of actors with a background in stand-up and sketch comedy who have starred in them[vi]. This is particularly evident in Diary of a Teenage Girl, as Kristen Wiig, well-known for her successful career on Saturday Night Live, stars as Minnie’s (Bel Powley) mother, Charlotte.
Diary concerns itself with various storytelling mediums; film, certainly, but also drawings, comics and animated comics[vii]. This merging of forms highlights Minnie’s creative imagination and her desire to be taken seriously as a cartoon artist. The cartoons Minnie draws cover her bedroom walls as she uses her imagination to animate them[viii], and they represent who she is in a similar way that Dawn’s theme represents who she is. At the end of the film, Minnie is seen to be successfully selling her comics, suggesting that she has not only matured physically and emotionally but also has the potential to achieve her dream. This positive ending contrast with how Dollhouse ends; Dawn asks her older brother whether high school is any better than middle school, to which he simply replies ‘no’. The positive resolution experience in Diary is similar to endings seen in conventional Hollywood films exploring teenage-hood, but it “successfully presents the world through a teenager’s gaze, with all the optimism, cynicism and narcissism that entails”[ix] nonetheless. For Diary to be considered a smart independent film it must eschew its Hollywood clichés in some way. The blankness with which this film explores Minnie’s relationship with Monroe (Charlotte’s current boyfriend, played by Alexander Skarsgård) represents a typically tumultuous transition from girl to woman that offers a “healthy serving of unapologetic nudity [and] sex”[x]. Heller’s attempt to convey the film’s story, “no matter how sensationalistic [or] disturbing”[xi], sets it aside from traditional Hollywood movies presenting teenagers exploring love and sex. The bad choices the characters in Diary make, primarily that of Minnie and Monroe’s affair, are believable in such a way that the film does not “stray from its own logic” [xii]. This in turn adds to the verisimilitude of the film’s tone. Although the narrative veers toward the darker side of morality[xiii], Heller’s realistic approach to it only makes the audience realise how challenging and disturbing the affair is, and further distances Diary from conventional Hollywood clichés.
One theme seen to be central to smart cinema is “interpersonal alienation within the white middle class”[xiv], with a particular focus on the family. Familial dynamics is explored in both Dollhouse and Diary in a way that highlights the two protagonists’ rejection of adolescence. Dawn is the middle child and her relationship with her parents and siblings suggests the tendencies typical of that position, particularly those of feeling ignored or alienated. Stereotypically, the eldest child is the most academic and the youngest sibling is considered the ‘baby’ of the family. In Dollhouse this stereotypes are accentuated, Mark is only concerned with getting into a ‘good’ college, and focusses all his attention on achieving that goal, whilst Missy (the youngest sibling, played by Daria Kalinina) dances around in her ballerina tutu, confides in her parents when Dawn is misbehaving, and is clearly the favourite child. These caricatures are used to reflect Dawn’s isolation from her siblings, and allow the audience to sympathise with her. However, the way in which Dawn responds to her siblings distances the audience from Dawn and produces conflicting emotions for viewers. The two sisters have a particularly turbulent relationship; Dawn clearly despises Missy for her popularity and close relationship with their mother. Dawn responds to this by being especially aggressive towards her younger sister.
Characters in quirky smart films often cling to objects and artifacts from childhood [xv]. Dawn saws off the head of one of Missy’s Barbie dolls in an aggressive attempt to upset her sister and to reject her own adolescent state. Dawn even contemplates killing Missy with a hammer while she sleeps, and these two – albeit unrealistic – acts of belligerency distance audiences from Dawn as she acts unreasonably hostile towards her baby sister. Dawn is also responsible for Missy’s kidnapping. Her refusal to give Missy their mother’s note, which results in her going missing, encourages the audience to disassociate themselves from Dawn, alienating her not only from her siblings but also from viewers. Dawn’s relationship with Mark is less turbulent but still relatively unstable. In an inversion of Dawn and Missy’s relationship, he is the one who treats Dawn with contempt, as he constantly shouts at and belittles her, usually whilst in the presence of Steve which is even more humiliating.
The final scene between the two siblings sees Dawn asking her big brother for advice on school, to which he tells her that it will be much of the same until she goes to college, where she may then have a chance at happiness. This lack of encouragement coheres with the nihilistic tones of Dollhouse, and suggests the viewers that unfortunately, Dawn’s life – her position within her family and her social and academic circles – is going to remain very much the same. This gloomy outlook contradicts the conventional Hollywood films directed towards teenagers, such as Clueless (dir. Amy Heckerling, 1995), released in the same year. However, this “symbolic opposition to the… mainstream commercial, Hollywood cinema”[xvi], and the blank style in which the pessimistic narrative is presented, firmly categorises Welcome to the Dollhouse as a smart independent film.
In Diary, Minnie only has one other sibling, a younger sister named Gretel. Gretel appears to be a typical younger sister in the way that she is always pestering Minnie or is following her around and trying to eavesdrop on her conversations. In comparison to Missy in Dollhouse, Gretel is redundant and doesn’t act as a driving force in the narrative. She does, however, highlight adolescence and immature behaviour through their interactions; this encourages to audience to remember Minnie’s age despite her seemingly adult behaviour with Monroe. Though it would be typical for Gretel to be the favoured sibling (being the ‘baby’ of the family) it is clear that Minnie is Charlotte’s preferred daughter. This can be seen as Charlotte encourages Minnie to engage in activities with her and Andrea (Charlotte’s best friend), such as partying and drinking alcohol. In this way, Charlotte seems like “an overgrown adolescent herself”[xvii] and treats Minnie more like a friend than a daughter.
Smart independent films often include an ‘awkward’ shot of “maladjusted families trapped in their dining rooms”[xviii]; these are present in both Dollhouse and Diary and visually signify familial dysfunction while underlining Dawn and Minnie’s feelings of isolation. Whilst at their dining table, Charlotte begins to give Minnie boy advice, relating it to her own experience as a teenager and thus emphasising her desire to be treated more like a friend than a mother. Charlotte encourages Minnie to “wear a skirt once in a while” telling her that she has a kind of power she just “doesn’t know it yet” whilst bragging about her own teenage past claiming to be “quite a piece” at Minnie’s age. Wiig does this with an air of smugness that leads the audience to distance themselves from her character. This distance is furthered when Charlotte gives Minnie advice on what to wear and suggests that she wear make-up; it appears to come from a place of judgment rather than a place of concern or love. Distancing the audience from Charlotte, particularly in this scene, is no easy task as we sympathise with her as she probes Minnie’s interest in boys. Knowing that Charlotte is being betrayed by both her daughter and her boyfriend creates a troubling conflict of emotions where the audience is left unsure who to align with in this moment. In traditional Hollywood films, the most favourable character for viewers to empathise with would be made explicit. Smart films, contrastingly, create characters and situations that are troubling and complex; causing emotional conflict within audiences by portraying characters with more depth and realism.
In Dollhouse, the numerous awkward dining shots are implemented to highlight Dawn’s isolation from her family as well as her animosity towards them. This is most explicit when Mrs Wiener (Angela Pietropinto) tells Dawn, “you’re not leaving this table ‘til you tell your sister you love her.” The next shot shows Dawn, much later into the night, still sitting at the dining table; suggesting to viewers that Dawn is adamant in her refusal to give in to her mother’s wishes and express any level of admiration for Missy. Although this could be disconcerting for audiences, the clear passing of time, made evident by Mrs Wiener re-entering the scene in her nightgown – while Dawn remains firmly rooted to the table – creates a humorous situation. This also announces Dawn’s relationship with her mother to be an unstable one; typical for films involving girls her age. Their turbulent relationship is reiterated in the following dinner scene. In this case, Mrs Wiener encourages Mark and Missy to help her destroy Dawn’s clubhouse, the ‘Special People’s Clubhouse.’ By insisting that her siblings gang up against Dawn, Mrs Wiener ensures that the audience is aware of Dawn’s alienation from her family in a distinct way.
Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Diary of a Teenage Girl also touch on the subject of sex, a topic which is frequently on Dawn’s Minnie’s, as with most teenagers. Both girls seek sexual partners with whom to explore their desires and bodies; this is both successful and unsuccessful for Dawn and Minnie. In an attempt to learn more about her love interest, Dawn seeks out the advice from Ginger (Zsanne Pitta), a girl in her year who has already engaged in sexual relationships with Steve. Solondz juxtaposes the two girls here through their outfits; despite being the same age, Ginger dresses to appear many years older than Dawn and the two girls are presented as polar opposites. Eye-line matching is implemented in a close-up shot of Dawn and Ginger to reflect the confrontational nature between the two characters. However, Ginger appears to be looking down on Dawn, and matched with her more mature sense of fashion, is suggested to be above or more successful than Dawn in the competition for Steve’s affection. The two girls are contrasted so starkly that it becomes humorous for viewers that Dawn believes she has a chance with Steve. In traditional Hollywood cinema, audiences would be encouraged to sympathise with Dawn’s naivety, but Solondz presents her obsession with Steve in such an amplified and unrealistic way that viewers cannot help but laugh at her attempts at romance.
Dawn has another (almost) sexual encounter when her classmate Brandon claims “I’m going to rape you,” before deciding that he would prefer to be in a relationship with Dawn. Brandon’s heart is left broken, however, as Dawn claims that she cannot be with him as she is too deeply in love with Steve. Stating that you wish to rape someone before claiming you would rather be in a relationship with them would prove disturbing content in a conventional film. However, in the case of Dollhouse, comedy is juxtaposed with melodramatic moments which allow viewers to distance themselves from the situation. The predominant source of comedy here is Dawn and Brandon’s ages; they are both 11-years-old and the abrupt way in which they talk about love and abuse is similar to the way children engage with topics that surpass their intellectual maturity level. The explicit implementation of irony here allows the viewer to easily disassociate themselves from the serious nature of these topics and makes these scenes easier to watch overall.
Diary addresses sex and body image very openly. In fact, the first image of the film is Minnie’s moving body, it’s “her butt, swinging, while she walks confidently through a San Francisco park”[xix]. Here, Minnie can be seen strutting through the park, her face glowing in response to her voice-over: “I had sex today.” Immediately, viewers are presented with the subject of Minnie’s body and sex life in an explicit way. However, rather than having the camera (or other characters) control the mechanism for how Minnie’s body is seen, she is the driving, conscious force behind the way her body appears and is used[xx]. It is actual Minnie who first proposes that she and Monroe have sex whilst they are at the bar Monroe was supposed to go to with Charlotte. This gives Minnie agency over her body and establishes her as an active seeker of sexual relations rather than rendering her passive throughout their affair. This correlates with Charlotte giving Minnie advice and discussing the power she has; unexpectedly encouraging her daughter to continue seeing Monroe. From this evening on, Minnie and Monroe engage in an affair, but alternately thrilled and uncertain about her first “grown-up” relationship, she begins to explore sexual partners beyond Monroe[xxi]. Minnie first begins sleeping with Ricky (Austin Lyon), a boy from her class show shows interest in her. However, he calls things off fairly quickly, claiming that Minnie is “too passionate.” This suggests to viewers that Minnie is isolated from men her own age, but this is due to their lack of maturity, not hers. Minnie also establishes agency over her own body when she and Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) pretend to be prostitutes. Whilst engaging in oral sex with two teenagers in the toilets of a club may not be the height of Minnie’s maturity, the two girls immediately admit that this was a mistake, and their ability to judge and learn from their actions highlights their desire to experiment as teenagers, but also grow as people.
Heller deals with the disturbing subject of Minnie and Monroe’s affair particularly frankly. Numerous scenes depict the couple engaging in coitus in a fairly graphic way. Long shots of them kissing and fondling are also employed to discomfort the viewer. The unapologetic way in which their affair is portrayed highlights a degree of verisimilitude in their relationship, establishing its nature as challenging for the audience. Smart cinema often implements the “awkward coupling” shot[xxii], in addition to the awkward dining shot discussed previously, in which the camera is placed directly above a couple either during or after sexual activity. After Minnie and Monroe sleep together for the first time, an awkward coupling shot shows the two intertwined; it is used here to emphasise the clear difference in size and age between the two characters. Minnie can then be seen to mark Monroe with an ‘X’ in her own blood, to which he exclaims: “I didn’t realise you were a virgin.” This action simultaneously suggests Minnie marking him as her property and establishing agency over her own body, as well as emphasises Minnie’s immaturity and their age difference, underlining the troubling nature of their affair.
Teenage-hood and adolescence are prominent in smart independent film just as much as in Hollywood blockbusters. However, the way in which these topics are addressed differs greatly between the two forms. In smart films – particularly in Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Diary of a Teenage Girl – teenage-hood and adolescence are portrayed in comedic and frank manners. The juxtaposition of melodrama and comedy in Dollhouse emphasises Dawn’s humiliation and encourages viewers to align with all characters besides her. This increases her isolation from the world around her, a trope which is unseen in classic Hollywood films but popular in independent films. The troubling issues of affairs and underage sex are addressed in Diary in an extremely abrupt style. The degree of verisimilitude with which these topics are brought into question highlights to the audience the realism of them. This makes destabilises viewers and is again a common method in independent film. The representation of the dysfunctional middle-class family in both Dollhouse and Diary, is something which resonates with a lot of audiences. The family portrayals highlight the realistic nature of these smart independent films. By creating characters with social, emotional and intellectual depth, the films are establishing themselves as smart, and unlike mainstream Hollywood blockbusters.
[i] Jeffrey Sconce. “Smart Cinema”, Contemporary American Cinema, Hammond, Michael, and Williams, Linda, New York: McGraw-Hill, (2006), 429-439: 430
[ii] Jeffrey Sconce. “Smart Cinema”, Contemporary American Cinema, Hammond, Michael, and Williams, Linda, New York: McGraw-Hill, (2006), 429-439: 432
[iii] Welcome to the Dollhouse. Directed by Todd Solondz, Suburban Pictures, 1995
[iv] The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Directed by Marielle Heller, Caviar Films, 2015
[v] James MacDowell, “Notes on Quirky”, Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, vol. 1 (2010), 1-16: 3
[vi] Jeffrey Sconce. “Smart Cinema”, Contemporary American Cinema, Hammond, Michael, and Williams, Linda, New York: Mc-Graw-Hill, (2006), 429-439: 432
[vii] Amelie Hastie, “The Vulnerable Spectator: Minnie and Me and the Living Girls”, Film Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 2 (2015), 36-43: 38 http://fq.ucpress.edu/content/ucpfq/69/2/36.full.pdf. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017
[viii] Amelie Hastie, “The Vulnerable Spectator: Minnie and Me and the Living Girls”, Film Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 2 (2015), 36-43: 39 http://fq.ucpress.edu/content/ucpfq/69/2/36.full.pdf. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017
[ix] Ethan Alter, “Film Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl”, Film Journal International, 5 Aug. 2015, http://www.filmjournal.com/reviews/film-review-diary-teenage-girl
[x] Kasia Hastings, “Is this the most sexually confrontational teen film?”, Dazed, 1 Aug. 2015. http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/25693/1/is-this-the-most-sexually-confrontational-teen-film
[xi] Jeffrey Sconce. “Smart Cinema”, Contemporary American Cinema, Hammond, Michael, and Williams, Linda, New York: McGraw-Hill, (2006), 429-439: 432
[xii] Amelie Hastie, “The Vulnerable Spectator: Minnie and Me and the Living Girls”, Film Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 2 (2015), 36-43: 36 http://fq.ucpress.edu/content/ucpfq/69/2/36.full.pdf. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.
[xiii] Kasia Hastings, “Is this the most sexually confrontational teen film?”, Dazed, 1 Aug. 2015. http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/25693/1/is-this-the-most-sexually-confrontational-teen-film
[xiv] Jeffrey Sconce. “Smart Cinema”, Contemporary American Cinema, Hammond, Michael, and Williams, Linda, New York: McGraw-Hill, (2006), 429-439: 436
[xv] James MacDowell, “Notes on Quirky”, Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, vol. 1 (2010), 1-16: 9
[xvi] Jeffrey Sconce. “Smart Cinema”, Contemporary American Cinema, Hammond, Michael, and Williams, Linda, New York: McGraw-Hill, (2006), 429-439: 430
[xvii] Ethan Alter, “Film Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl”, Film Journal International, 5 Aug. 2015, http://www.filmjournal.com/reviews/film-review-diary-teenage-girl
[xviii] Jeffrey Sconce. “Smart Cinema”, Contemporary American Cinema, Hammond, Michael, and Williams, Linda, New York: McGraw-Hill, (2006), 429-439: 436
[xix] Amelie Hastie, “The Vulnerable Spectator: Minnie and Me and the Living Girls”, Film Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 2 (2015), 36-43: 36 http://fq.ucpress.edu/content/ucpfq/69/2/36.full.pdf. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017
[xx] Amelie Hastie, “The Vulnerable Spectator: Minnie and Me and the Living Girls”, Film Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 2 (2015), 36-43: 42 http://fq.ucpress.edu/content/ucpfq/69/2/36.full.pdf. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017
[xxi] Ethan Alter, “Film Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl”, Film Journal International, 5 Aug. 2015, http://www.filmjournal.com/reviews/film-review-diary-teenage-girl
[xxii] Jeffrey Sconce. “Smart Cinema”, Contemporary American Cinema, Hammond, Michael, and Williams, Linda, New York: McGraw-Hill, (2006), 429-439: 436