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5 characters that demonstrate Todd Solondz’s unique approach to empathy

(Photo: Jeff Vespa/Getty Images)

Don’t let anyone tell you Todd Solondz isn’t a humanist. Sure, his work is often vindictive, depressed, and nihilistic, but there’s more than meets the eye to his seemingly hopeless narratives, many of which routinely balk at humanity’s capacity for meaningful change. In everything from his cult hits (Welcome To The Dollhouse, Happiness) to his overlooked indies (Palindromes, Dark Horse), Solondz rejects satisfying emotional arcs in favor of hard-fought justifications. His characters don’t grow; they learn how to lie—to themselves and everyone they’re trying not to hurt. Anything beyond that, it seems for Solondz, would be dishonest. And there is perhaps no greater manifestation of humanism than the acknowledgment that there is no higher plane and that, whether we like it or not, the life we were born into is the life we are destined to live.

Bleak? It doesn’t have to be. There’s freedom in abandoning your dreams and a queasy sort of hope in accepting that you’ll never outrun your devils. Although Solondz routinely rails against accusations of misanthropy and mean-spiritedness, he’s also self-aware enough to understand that his philosophies aren’t all that friendly. He’ll be the first to dryly acknowledge that each of his films has made half the money of what the previous one made. That hasn’t stopped him, however, from continuing to dissect the topics he holds close to his heart: compulsion, delusion, perversion, and, perhaps most profoundly, the dichotomy between forgiveness and the unforgivable. It also hasn’t stopped him from building his films around outcasts, narcissists, and sexual deviants, all of whom he works to humanize in ways that inevitably leave audiences squirming. As such, an air of danger inevitably surfaces in Solondz’s work—there’s emotional violence in asking an audience to identify the humanity in a predatory pedophile.

It’s there, in his deep dives into the minds of the unlovable and unforgivable, that Solondz’s well of empathy begins to overflow. Where other filmmakers strain to give us protagonists that are immediately identifiable, Solondz tends to confront us with someone who, for most of the audience, is an ill-fitting subversion of a stereotype we didn’t know we had. While he’ll often spend the next 90 minutes raining abuse upon those characters, he’ll never once seek to judge them. Nor will he ask for an audience’s sympathy. Solondz simply wants his characters to exist, to be given a space in which to breathe. It’s there that humanity is allowed to blossom.

Solondz’s unique approach to character is also colored by his conceptual and stylistic flourishes. Palindromes, for example, found seven actresses and one actor playing the role of a 13-year-old girl, while 2009’s Life During Wartime revisited the characters from Happiness with new actors in each role. In both instances, this fluidity in appearance allows the filmmaker to create his own archetypes, to add shade and dimension established personalities, and to explore an interest in inner worlds versus outer appearances. He’s pulling a similar trick in his latest film, Wiener-Dog, which revisits Welcome To The Dollhouse’s Dawn Wiener as an adult, despite Solondz having already killed her off in a previous film.

A commitment to character is central to Solondz’s cinematic pursuits. And that’s why it seemed fitting to revisit five different characters from his oeuvre, each of whom serve as the best examples of how Solondz is one of the most empathetic filmmakers working today.

1. Dawn Wiener, Welcome To The Dollhouse


The cinematic nerds of the ’80s and early ’90s often projected the sense that they chose that lifestyle. For them, it was their pocket protectors and poor fashion sense that solidified their place on the social totem pole. It didn’t help that these characters were often played by slender hunks in suspenders and black-framed specs. Dawn Wiener felt so refreshing in 1995, because here we had an outcast whose alienation stemmed from genetics and circumstance. Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn wants so badly to be cool, but everything from her overbite to her incoordination to her distant parents has ensured that it will never happen. She’s a lost cause, and she’ll only find salvation once she accepts the fact that she’ll never be sexy or popular in the way she dreams. But that kind of self-awareness, traditionally, doesn’t come for a long, long time, and so the time in between is mostly spent alternating between resentment and retaliation, not doe-eyed sadness or a vibrant sense of humor.

Dawn Wiener isn’t the kind of nerd who sits in her room and cries. She’s the kind who recycles the insults of her classmates on her little sister. She’s the kind who will slough off one of her childhood friends if it means people will think she’s cool. She’s the kind who isn’t afraid of rape because it might, for once in her life, make her feel pretty. Is that cruel? Obviously, but it’s to be expected in a culture that offers no viable alternative to trying to make yourself look cool in front of the cool kids. Although it might hurt for them to admit it, Dawn’s reaction to unpopularity is infinitely more relatable to the common outcast than any of those nerds on Saved By The Bell.


2. Bill Maplewood, Happiness, Life During Wartime


There’s plenty of pedophiles (both real and supposed) in Solondz’s work, but there’s none so memorable as Happiness’ Bill Maplewood. A husband, father, and mild-mannered therapist, Maplewood secretly harbors a predatory desire for adolescent boys. Dylan Baker, in a performance that very well could’ve ended his career, played Maplewood as both calculating and conflicted; his desires are fevered and compulsive, but the fallout is riddled with regret. He’s no sociopath. That Happiness forces the audience to witness not only his process but also his struggle was enough to get it stamped with the dreaded NC-17 rating.

At the same time, it’s a character that’s both rare and necessary in modern film. The empathetic portrayals of sexual abusers in movies like Little Children and The Woodsman (both of which came after Happiness) center around men who are struggling against the desire to act, whereas Happiness explores a man in the midst of his attacks. Happiness most certainly casts Maplewood as a monster, but it also gives him the space to tell his side of the story, both in a late-night pseudo-confession to his wife and a nerve-shredding conversation with his son, who is the same age as the boys he abuses. If art is society’s portal into human understanding, it’s essential that we attempt to understand all humans, even the ones we’d like to pretend don’t exist.


Ciarán Hinds plays Maplewood in Life During Wartime as a man in pursuit of some form of forgiveness after having been released from prison. His journey is sad and bleak—he admits to his son that he’ll never be cured of the compulsions that have ruined him. By refusing to give him an easy out, Solondz acknowledges pedophilia as a sickness, while also raising the question of whether there are some sins that can never be forgiven. Here, Maplewood is a lost soul—a depiction that, unlike most films regarding the topic, at least acknowledges that pedophiles have souls.

3. Marcus, Storytelling


In Storytelling’s first segment, “Fiction,” we meet Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) in mid-coitus. Straddling him is Vi (Selma Blair), nude and wailing in abandon. It’s not the sex or nudity that asserts itself, though. Rather, it’s Marcus’ visible cerebral palsy and how it clashes with our preconceptions of both movement disorders and casual intercourse. It’s easy to label the scene’s salaciousness as mere shock, but to do so is to disregard Solondz’s subversiveness. Those who suffer from neurological disorders or other disabilities are often coddled in modern film, unable to act in any way that doesn’t center around their struggle. In just a few short scenes, Solondz establishes Marcus as a fully formed human by allowing him to express the same depths of anger and desire as someone who doesn’t have such a diagnosis.

Several years before journeyman oddball Crispin Glover set out to normalize those with neurological disorders with surrealist films such as What Is It? and It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine., Solondz had created a character with CP who wasn’t defined by it. Honestly, Marcus is a bit of a needy dickhead, lashing out at Vi despite her loyalty to him. By not painting him as an unassailable angel, Solondz lets the character emerge without ever once opening himself to an audience’s pity. His only misstep was not casting an actor who actually had CP. Fitzpatrick is always a welcome presence, but to see an actor adopting the limited mobility of someone with the disorder is enough to almost upend the character’s raison d’être.


4. Trish Maplewood, Happiness, Life During Wartime


As played by Cynthia Stevenson in Happiness, Trish Maplewood is almost a nonentity. That’s not a slam on the performance, since that version of Trish is content to blend into the white Formica of her kitchen counters. Her house is gorgeous, her kids bright-eyed, and her husband amply employed. All that’s left for her to do is judge those who have yet to achieve the American dream in the way she has.

Then Trish’s husband is outed as a pedophile. She and her family are run out of their quaint New Jersey suburb, and the American dream is, forgive the cliché, now a nightmare. Life During Wartime isn’t perfect, but its exploration of Trish is enough to make it essential viewing. Now played by Allison Janney, she begins the film with stars in her eyes, having fallen in love for the first time since the dissolution of her marriage. She swoons over her new beau’s normalcy, all while claiming that the horrendous circumstances of her divorce aren’t a contributing factor in how she now sees men. Of course, nothing is so easy, and much of Trish’s journey concerns how her views of both men and relationships have inexorably darkened by such close proximity to a monster. There are plenty of movies about devils, but rarely do they explore in such intimate detail the recovery process of the people who loved them.


5. Abe Wertheimer, Dark Horse


Dark Horse’s Abe Wertheimer is an overweight, balding, entitled schmuck who, at 36, lives with his parents and works for his dad. He wears a silver chain. He puts in mediocre work, blows his money on action figures, and hassles Toys “R” Us employees whenever it’s convenient. Let’s put it this way: If Abe were around today, he would have plenty to say about the new Ghostbusters movie.

Played with an oily, discomfiting charm by Jordan Gelber, Abe brazenly proposes marriage to Selma Blair’s overmedicated Miranda during their first (impromptu) date. She eventually accepts, but only because she feels the sole escape from her depression is to abandon her dreams, get married, and have babies. Whether she’s settling for him or not is beside the point for Abe, who, like most trolls, is as desperate as he is overconfident.


In this age, building a film around an entitled fanboy like Abe is as risky as Happiness was in its age, but Solondz uses the film to offer some insight into the sorts of guys who can make comment sections such soul-crushing places. Abe’s unpleasantness stems not from some catchall loneliness or parental neglect, but from the idea that he’s a victim of his own complacency. As in all of Solondz’s movies, there’s no redeeming Abe; there is, however, a strain of regret that can’t help but creep beneath your skin.

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