Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

Your enjoyment of this film may depend entirely on your ability to recognize the characters. Many of us have been (or known) this unique kind of social misfit, and many of us haven't. Being a member of the first group, I enjoyed the film immensely, but I can't imagine members of the second group getting most of the humor, because it comes in those moments of recognition. Some critics have attacked the film for trying to have it both ways, by turns mocking and rooting for its characters, but I think that provides two avenues of enjoyment for the audience; you can pick the one you like, or even enjoy both. Neither effort compromised the other.

(Plot spoilers ahead.) What I believe did compromise the film overall was the endless triumph the character enjoyed. His embarassments were mostly private, and every conflict led to his clear victory over the bullies and popular kids. What would "Welcome to the Dollhouse" have achieved if Dawn Weiner's schemes had proven successful every time? We root for her because she rails against the system, not because she beats it, and the system doesn't seem so bad when it is beaten so easily. Napoleon is clearly smart enough to get ahead in his school's social network — that he doesn't employ social graces could indicate ironic detachment or some sort of self-limiting personality disorder, but either way the film suffers every time he's proven not to be the loser he appears to be. This isn't a triumph of a loser against his own nature; it's a story about a guy who isn't a loser but acts like one for unknown reasons, probably cinematic reasons. For its humor, consistency, and gracefulness, I'd rate this one of the best films of the year if it didn't shoot itself in the foot so regularly.

Still, I have to praise those attributes. Director Jared Hess (working from his script with Jerusha Hess) knows his town, his characters, and his movie inside out, and works them for all they're worth. The film almost never has a misstep in tone, and there are a handful of moments with perfect style, like Napoleon's emergence in his brown suit. There are also a significant number of laugh-out-loud moments, many from Elfen Ramirez, who developed a monotone delivery style that soon brought me to giggles even when he wasn't saying anything funny; his scene on the steps where he decides to run for class president was, for me, the funniest in the film. And it's good to see Tina Majorino acting again after five years away from the camera; she is the most nuanced, subtle nerd in the film, but those cues and signals add up. I'm glad to have such fine talents in service of helping me remember the better moments of my own teen nerd-hood.

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