2005Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Ellen Barkin, Richard Masur, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Matthew Faber
hose familiar with the work of Todd Solondz already know what to expect from his films. They’re rarely cheerful, usually incredibly alienating and pessimistic, and yet often quite amusing. As with his previous work, Palindromes lives up to those expectations, but somehow falls short when its own preciousness is crushed under the weight of its lofty narrative.
The film deals specifically with the character Aviva (allow me to point out the obvious palindrome, in case you didn’t notice). In the film’s opening scene she attends the funeral of Dawn Wiener (Solondz's former tragic protagonist of Welcome to the Dollhouse). After the funeral she tells her mother that she never wants to end up like Dawn (who committed suicide after becoming morbidly obese and falling victim to date rape). Her plan is to have lots of babies because then she’d always have someone to love and never be lonely.
The film then jumps ahead several years. Aviva is on a trip with her parents to visit friends of theirs. She is introduced to their dorky son Judah who takes her up to his room, shows her porno flicks, and eventually, at her request, has sex with her.
He's making his move...
Predictably, she gets pregnant, which sets up the primary concern of the film. Aviva wants to keep the baby, but her mother (played perfectly by Ellen Barkin) wants her to get an abortion. It’s truly disturbing to watch as she gently coerces Aviva into seeing things her way, describing the numerous birth defects she believes the child is likely to have. Reluctantly, Aviva agrees, but the operation doesn’t go smoothly and the doctors have to give her a hysterectomy.
The rest of the film deals with the aftermath of Aviva’s decision. She runs away from home, has sex and falls in love with a pedophile, and eventually ends up at a boarding house run by the eerily cheerful Mama Sunshine, who has a fondness for taking in abandoned children with disabilities.
Palindromes is filled with isolated moments of genius, but never coalesces into anything substantial. One of the more confusing decisions is to have Aviva played by several different actresses; none of which resemble each other. As a young girl she’s black, then she becomes a pasty white girl with wavy black hair. At one point she’s played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and at still another she’s an obese black woman much older in age. The intended purpose, I assume, is to show how Aviva’s plight could be the plight of any woman. However, the effect drains the audience of any emotional investment since we are never given enough time to clearly identify with Aviva’s numerous incarnations.
Like in his other films, Solondz forces humor into situations that shouldn’t be humorous, yet we often find ourselves laughing heartily only to later regret our amusement when things grow even more sour. Consider a scene at Mama Sunshine’s where we are introduced to the freaky Christian version of the Partridge family consisting of disabled children. Under normal circumstances, their disabilities would be no laughing matter, but the audience can’t seem to restrain laughter, precisely as a result of how Solondz introduces information.
Then when the blind girl tells the story of how she was the unwanted child of a junkie who beat her mercilessly until the age of three at which point she overdosed and died... well, the laughter kind of dies down. Solondz forces us to see past the caricatures he himself initially sets in place, perhaps making us aware of our own insensitivity towards the outcasts we face every day.
Don't be upset, buddy. I'm sure you'll love prison...
It’s a noble goal, yet the effect is quite polarizing. In past films, however, Solondz managed to string us along with truly compelling narratives. Here, he appears to be grasping out in all directions in a feeble attempt to find deeper meaning in it all, typically resorting to heavy-handed dialogue that clumsily breaks up the intended purpose of the film, which is either anti-abortion, pro-choice or anti-Christian. Although Solondz could reasonably present all these positions without actually taking a stance, the film never manages to depict any of these sides beyond the clichéd perceptions outsiders hold of them.
In some ways Palindromes represents Solondz’s most upbeat work, which is still at least ten shades darker than even the most dismal of Hollywood narratives. I want to say it’s also his most accessible, but I feel the shape-shifting central character and its apparent vacuous nature might not be easily digestible for those unfamiliar with his films.
On the other hand, I can only foresee disappointment for those who enjoyed Happiness or Welcome to the Dollhouse. It’s certainly a bold film and for that I can admire it, but it never really hits full stride and instead becomes something one can appreciate but not necessarily enjoy.