Based on a true story, Welcome to Marwen starts where the life of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) nearly ended, or rather where it began again. On April 8, 2000, outside a bar in upstate New York, five men attacked a drunk Hogancamp after they learned of his penchant for wearing women's shoes and left him for dead. Now, several years later, Hogancamp has lost all memories of his past life due to the resultant brain damage and is racked by chronic pain. Once a gifted illustrator, his motor skills have deteriorated so severely he can't hold a pencil. After Medicaid stopped paying for his rehabilitative therapy, Hogancamp began to construct an elaborate WWII-era Belgian city he christens "Marwen" that is fully developed by the time the movie begins. Full of Nazis, beautiful women, and a blue-haired witch (Diane Kruger), this miniature world, it quickly becomes clear, is a theater of the mind where Hogancamp endlessly reenacts the attack and its aftermath in an attempt to come to terms with it.
At the outset of the film, Hogancamp seems to have mostly recovered, though he constantly blames his alcoholism for the attack. He has relearned how to walk and goes to work, talks to the townspeople, and photographs his dolls. But soon we get hints of the incredible amount of stress he's under. His phone rings off the hook with calls from his lawyer reminding him of the sentencing hearing for his attackers at which he's slated to testify. Although surrounded by a supportive and accommodating community, small events send him into a PTSD-like shock: a Nazi doll, a TV turned up too loud, a whistling kettle. At the same time, Hogancamp has an exhibition of his post-attack photographs upcoming at a blue-chip gallery in New York City, which his friends pressure him to attend. The line between reality and dreams begins to fray as Hogancamp introduces a doll version of his new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) into Marwen after meeting her. As their friendship progresses, Mark proposes to her in real life and Nicol's confused discomfort poignantly illustrates how what started as a coping mechanism for Hogancamp has come to take on a life of its own.
In the end, Hogancamp is finally able to confront his attackers, attend his gallery show, and shift his affection from the clearly uninterested Nicol to the clearly interested Roberta (Merritt Wever). Just before the credits, the film shows us a photo of the real Hogancamp, along with the information that to this day he has refrained from drinking alcohol, that he continues to make art, and that Marwen now has over 200 inhabitants. Despite its many "truth is stranger than fiction" qualities, Welcome to Marwen follows a quite conventional narrative: The hero is confronted with an obstacle, which he (it's usually a "he") valiantly overcomes to prove his mettle.
All of this is overlaid, however, with Hogancamp's profound emotional and physical disabilities. The character's eventual success is all the more triumphant as the film goes to great lengths to demonstrate just how debilitating Hogancamp's condition is. In this way, Welcome to Marwen falls into well-worn tropes in which disabled bodies are called upon to provide audience catharsis. In her TEDx talk, "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much," the late Stella Young relates an experience from when she was teaching, and a student interrupted to ask her when she was going to do her "motivational speaking." In that moment, Young realized, "For lots of us, disabled people are not our teachers or our doctors or our manicurists. We're not real people. We are there to inspire." Young describes these uses of people with disabilities as "pornographic," as they "objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people." For her, "the purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, 'Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.'"
Young ends her talk by sharing her hope for "a world where we don't have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning." By giving us a main character who does quite a bit more than get out of bed and remember his own name in the morning, Welcome to Marwen certainly breaks away from some of the features of "inspiration porn" Young identifies.
But perhaps this step forward is accompanied by at least one step back. It's no coincidence that the studio, Universal, chose to release the film so close to Christmas, as it fully fits the mold of the "heartwarming holiday movie." The winter holidays are traditionally at once about feeling good and remembering the less fortunate (think A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, etc.). The film ends with Hogancamp striding down the street in high heels, dragging a toy car full of dolls behind him, the very picture of queer self-acceptance.
But much of the film also peers through the concerned, indulgent eyes of the women who surround Hogancamp, both in Marwen and in real-world Kingston, New York. These are the eyes Welcome to Marwen offers us. While Welcome to Marwen certainly wouldn't pass the Bechdel test, this isn't the most worrisome problem vis-à-vis gender in the film. We learn that Hogancamp collects women's shoes (itself a perfectly acceptable hobby), which he refers to as a "woman's essence" (at best creepy, at worst misogynist). Nevertheless, Hogancamp is portrayed as more pathetic than threatening, especially when contrasted with Nicol's rough, motorcycle-boot-clad ex-boyfriend Kurt (Neil Jackson). The female characters in Welcome to Marwen are all a little too yielding, a little too understanding. They exist to make Hogancamp feel good, they treat him as fragile. In this way they are like those Young faults—they expect so little of Hogancamp that it's all too easy for him to impress them, and all too easy for us to feel good about ourselves in the process. v