Somewhere over the rainbow and some-place beyond sarcasm lies the arid, forbidding world of Todd Solondz. Actually, “world” is a misnomer. Solondz-land, usually suburban New Jersey, is more like a nonexistent comfort zone. Palindromes, which opens with a Jewish prayer for the dead, is consecrated “in loving memory of Dawn Wiener,” the hapless heroine of Solondz’s 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse and perhaps his alter ego; it concerns the misadventures of Dawn’s 13-year-old cousin Aviva, who is played by eight performers of varying ages, races, genders, and body types (including, at one point, Jennifer Jason Leigh). Dawn committed suicide but Aviva (Hebrew for “springtime,” as well as a palindrome) wants to live—indeed, she wants to quicken with life and takes it upon herself to have hasty, furtive, and hardly enjoyable sex with the lumpish son of family friends in order to become pregnant. Which she does.
Directed in a functional style at a lugubrious pace, Palindromes has a sedated quality that’s deliberately at odds with its often sensationalistic material but perfectly suited to its schematics. Solondz recently told
The Austin Chronicle that he considered Palindromes “the heartbreaking story of a young girl on a quest for love.” “Heartbreaking” is an abstract concept, as is love: The elephant in this dollhouse is the abortion that Aviva is compelled to have by her concerned mother (played as a comic horror by Ellen Barkin) and that, against all odds, the doctor is compelled to botch.
The moral equation is further complicated once Aviva flees the safety of New Jersey for deepest America and, now played by a heavyset stricken-looking adult African American actress (Sharon Wilkins), finds a temporary sanctuary in a ma-and-pa Christian commune for disabled or otherwise damaged children. In a movie populated by grim and unlovely people, cheerful Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk) is by default the most sympathetic character, even if she does feed her charges “freedom toast” for breakfast and encourage the group singing of inspirational rock-gospel anthems like “Every Child Has a Right to Be Born.” The corollary turns out to be that every abortionist deserves to die—and then some.
All families are nightmarish, every mother is a hypocrite: Is Solondz a moralist or a misanthrope, or both? Does he hold his characters or his audience in greater contempt? The first half of Storytelling, Solondz’s strongest filmmaking to date, was a comedy of American racism far meaner, funnier, and more viewer-implicating than the warmed-over nasty name-calling of Neil LaBute’s new play This Is How It Goes. And having watched Palindromes with an audience, I know that Solondz is cruelly adept at encouraging people—most of whom, I’d guess, were liberals—to laugh at death, even that of a child. On the other hand, it would be fun to view
Palindromes in the company of Mama Sunshine’s crowd. Some might miss Solondz’s film-nerd joke of underscoring the action with a pastiche of the breathy music from Rosemary’s Baby; it would be harder to ignore that Aviva (unfairly labeled a “child whore”) has a sense of sex and procreation that, save for the protection of matrimony, is virtually identical to that of the Christian right.
Premiered during the 2004 presidential campaign, Palindromes suggests a nation fighting its second (or perhaps third) civil war. And like John Waters’s A Dirty Shame, Bill Condon’s Kinsey, and (mutatis mutandis) Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, it conceptualizes the blue and red states of mind in terms of sexual autonomy. But unlike these other filmmakers, Solondz is not a humanist. Leigh’s backstreet abortionist can be read as martyred saint or innocent monster; Solondz’s characters are essentially static. This is the spelled-out meaning of his title: Late in the movie, Dawn’s mathematically minded brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), explains his philosophy that people cannot change their basic nature; they are like words that, frontward or backward, are always the same. Aviva is fighting for her body, her self, and Solondz imagines that as her right, at age 13, to have a baby—a position both sides of the abortion issue would heartily oppose.
Based on this sort of Talmudic thinking, Palindromes should really be called Conundrums. I don’t know another filmmaker who would have one character defend another against the charge of child molestation by explaining, “He’s not a pedophile— pedophiles love children.” The joke is funny not because it problematizes pedophilia or because it questions the meaning of love but because it takes the definition of pedophile literally. If the point of A Dirty Shame was that nothing human is foreign to John Waters, Palindromes seems to suggest that, for Todd Solondz, everything human is.