It was 70 degrees in Indianapolis as I drove home from Key Cinemas having witnessed the latest film from writer/director Todd Solondz, "Palindromes." It was 70 degrees, and yet I found myself shivering as I remembered the film I'd just seen and its characters...deeply emotional, at times disturbing yet oddly enough neither attractive or repulsive.
A film by Solondz is an acquired taste. After first really gaining notoriety with "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (actually his third film), Solondz continues to challenge audiences with uniquely intriguing and controversial films that defy taboos, confront stereotypes and exhibits humanity in the sort of way that a motor vehicle crash presents itself...it's ugly, it's painful and even horrifying...yet, time after time, we find ourselves hypnotized by the sight of it. Solondz presents his characters without judgment. Of course, considering some of the characters presented this, in itself, can be considered controversial. In films such as "Happiness," "Storytelling", and now "Palindromes" Solondz looks at issues such as pedophilia, disability, sex, religion, race and, yes, even happiness in such a blunt yet calm way that it's nearly impossible to not watch and think "I can't believe I'm seeing this."
A palindrome is a name that is the same backwards and forwards...as in our lead character, Aviva, a young, precocious young girl growing up with her parents, played by Ellen Barkin and Richard Masur. Solondz takes a novel, yet largely effective approach to the character of Aviva by presenting her as portrayed by eight different performers (including one male). Aviva is started out as a young girl attending the funeral of a young, similarly precocious young female cousin (interesting note: this cousin is Dawn Wiener, the main character in "Dollhouse"). It is this traumatic experience that starts Aviva on her obsession of having a baby...this obsession leads her to have sex around the age of 13 with a boy who prematurely ejaculates.
Nonetheless, Aviva, who has now changed performers twice already becomes pregnant. She's basically forced into an abortion by her over-protective, mind-bogglingly selfish mother who, rather ironically, went to the same clinic at one point she confesses to her daughter. The abortion is botched, Aviva ends up with a hysterectomy...something she is never told. This begins a long, winding journey Aviva through a variety of situations and relationships including a trucker who has sex with her then leaves her and into the family of Mama Sunshine, an odd assortment...sort of a disabled version of "Up With People." Being disabled, I found it rather hilarious on a deeper level than I believe most would...some would undoubtedly consider it offensive. This time with Mama Sunshine may be where she feels the most accepted, however, even it ends up controversial as the previously mentioned trucker ends up being a "friend" work with with the Sunshine family, who are also pro-life zealots who set out to kill abortion doctors.
What I love most about a film by Solondz is that the lines between good and bad are blurred. All of these characters are deeply human...wounded souls...some do wonderful things for selfish reasons, some do horrible things for noble reasons...others seem to merely survive and survive and survive.
If you were offended by "The Woodsman"...then seeing this film would not be advised. "The Woodsman" largely hinted at things...and seldom "went there." This film not only "goes there," but on a certain level normalizes it. I sincerely doubt any abuse survivor with unresolved issues could see this film without becoming upset. Likewise, I doubt that any person with a physical challenge/disability could see this film without being irritated...both of these things are sad, in my eyes, because what Solondz does really well is not judge the process...he presents his characters in an every day way because they are part of everyday life.
There are several standout performances, and there are other performances where you look at the screen and are trying to figure out "Is that on purpose?" For example, the opening "Aviva" is a young African-American actress of probably 9 or 10...quite honestly, she's a rather horrid actress who appears to be reading lines off the cue card...while she looks adorable...well, her delivery was simply awkward...and yet, as time went on, I found this characterization balancing wonderfully with the others...perhaps the most powerful portrayal is offered by the "Mama Sunshine" Aviva...portrayed by Sharon Wilkins, a large African-American female...older, and clearly not a child...clearly not innocent...yet the whole scene is played off as though she is AND Wilkins is mesmerizing. Likewise, the wondrous Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Aviva after she has returned home and adds a weathered, yet tender touch to the character that is just hypnotic. Additionally, her insistence to invite a family member who is alleged to be a pedophile leads to one of the most quietly powerful conversations I've seen on film this year ending with these classic lines:
Mark Wiener: By the way, I'm not a pedophile.
Aviva: I know. Pedophiles LOVE children.
The cast is uniformly wonderful including one of Ellen Barkin's best performances in years, and a nice supporting performance by Richard Masur (who, ironically, has played a pedophile on TV before). Debra Monk offers, perhaps, the film's best supporting performance as Mama Sunshine...a noble woman who has opened her home to several disabled/unwanted children yet, quite clearly, is actually healing herself in the process. It is also ironic that Aviva finds herself in this home surrounded by children that her mother told her would ruin her life (when convincing her to have an abortion). These children, while not the greatest actors, are mesmerizing...especially when watching them sing...I sort of felt like I was watching a Gimp version of The Partridge Family. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Character actor Richard Riehle and Stephen Adly-Guirgis also add tremendously in supporting roles. Solondz is a minimalist, and this film is no exception...production design is simple, yet effective. Costuming, while unique, is well suited to the variations of the characters. The music was noticeably poorly edited, yet during songs I found myself getting new insights and additional ideas that helped me appreciate the film even more.
"Palindromes" is a challenging film...it is, at times, a tad boring and has definite pockets where the acting is not up to par. Yet, in reality, I can't help but feel this was an intentional move by Solondz. It's as if he wants us to realize...that we can change our looks, our voices, our boobs, our bodies, our talents, our gifts, our color...but who we are doesn't change. Selfish people will always be selfish...happy people will always find a way to be happy. Challenging, thought provoking and deeply human...Todd Solondz, backward and forward, is simply an outstanding, courageous storyteller and a unique, insightful and gifted director.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic