The new film Wiener-Dog marks the return of Todd Solondz, the American independent filmmaker probably best known for the 1995 film that kick-started his career, Welcome to the Dollhouse, which followed a much tormented middle school girl through first crushes and a seemingly infinite parade of injustices. Returning to that film's protagonist, Dawn Wiener, and adding a canine companion to match her Wiener-Dog nickname, Solondz might be the only filmmaker who can earn groans from his fans by announcing a new film starring an adorable Dachshund — not because making a movie about a dog is sentimental, but because any Solondz fan knows that a happy, innocent, helpless dog introduced in the first act is sure to explode in the third. But as much as Wiener-Dog features the kind of pessimistic inevitability audiences have come to expect from Solondz, there is no small amount of mercy to this film, which sees Solondz ushering in the return of beloved Dollhouse characters like Dawn and Brandon McCarthy and daring not to crush them (and the audience) with the cruelty of fate.
The quality of Solondz’s mercy has been much debated since the start of his career, when films like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness were confounding the critical establishment with romantic rape threats and tragic masturbation. But as Solondz has somewhat miraculously been able to sustain a working career over the last two and a half decades, the suggestions of mercy in his work have added up to a kind of moral philosophy that treats the recognition of cruelty as the first step to its eradication.
With the exception of his first film, Fear, Anxiety, & Depression, in which Solondz played a New York playwright looking to send a manuscript to Samuel Beckett, Solondz’s work has focused on the white suburban family. This focus in itself doesn't seem that unique — after all, from Updike to Duplass, how much of the white male canon of American art has fixated on the domestic experiences of white small towns? But if the mumblecore generation has staked its claim on malaise, Solondz’s perspective on the American middle class is a (funny!) vision of human brutality that has only become more relevant over time. If, at the start of his career, Solondz’s bitter portraits of white America’s self-hatred once seemed like a funny quirk of a strange depressive, in light of recent findings about increased mortality rates, opioid addiction, death by drinking, economic displacement, and hate-fueled Trumpism, Solondz’s work appears not just prescient but cautionary.
Where some filmmakers like to explore different genres and modes of humanity, Solondz’s films exist within the same universe — sometimes literally, as in Life During Wartime or Wiener-Dog, which follow characters from earlier Solondz films as played by new casts. But even when he’s working with original stories and new characters, Solondz’s way of seeing the world remains the same. Solondz sets his stories in periods that should mark transition — adolescence, middle age, and old age — but his characters’ hopes for change are either thwarted by circumstance or by a faith that exists without action. Characters affect similar patterns of speech, their families struggle with similar problems of communication, and they obsess over different facets of the same problems as alienation, loneliness, and greed threaten to upend their dreams of a better future. Whether it’s Dawn Wiener's broken piano playing in Welcome to the Dollhouse, Allen pathetically sneaking his hand across the sofa in Happiness, or Aviva’s confessions of love to the truck driver in Palindromes, Solondz’s characters are all waiting for a tender gesture, an offering of love and acceptance that rarely comes from the world or the people around them. Without it, they’ll never muster the strength to change their lives.
In the absence of this much-longed-for tenderness, what emerges is a kind of petty hierarchy, a relentless jockeying to save face and maintain control. In Happiness, Helen and Trish mock their less-fortunate sister, patronizing her attempts to take control of her life and thus undermining her self-confidence. Brandon fixates on Dawn in Welcome to the Dollhouse and eventually reveals his love for her, but only after he’s bullied her relentlessly — all because she’s the only person lower on the middle school food chain than he is. The in-class critiques of the grad student short stories in Storytelling are an exercise in psychosadism, and the entirety of Dark Horse is built around a character who can only find — in himself and in others — the capacity to take, never to give.
Why watch a movie if it’s only going to make you feel bad? Solondz’s answer is in his camera. For every moment that his characters are denied love in their lives onscreen, they are offered it through Solondz’s filmmaking, with his gentle direction of performers, patience for pauses, and his willingness to preserve awkwardness. Solondz’s films are a test of our empathy — a measure of our ability to recognize the duality of human nature and our acceptance of a shared humanity, even when that humanity is flawed to the point of being jaundiced. You can’t love without understanding.