The Todd Solondz problem will always be in our faces because that’s where he puts it. He doesn’t have the nyah-nyah attack of such punk auteurs as Larry Clark or Harmony Korine—just the opposite: I can’t think of a filmmaker who combines so much aggression with so little affect. But he’s one of the few writer-directors who can earn an NC-17 rating for a movie without nudity or profanity; his films are just so conceptually grotesque that you wouldn’t want to show them to anyone below the age of … I was going to write “40,” but that would be too glib. I actually respect Solondz’s purity of vision and thought Happiness worked beautifully as a sicko sitcom. I also respect his obstinacy: No matter how much his distributors plead for a slightly softer product, he’ll always show us the world through shit-colored glasses. Does Solondz deserve a rating of his own? Say, NR-DS—“Not recommended for persons depressed or suicidal”?
Solondz opens Palindromes (Wellspring) with an off-camera suicide—or perhaps it should be called an artistic filicide: the funeral of Dawn Weiner, the heroine of his breakthrough feature Welcome to the Dollhouse. The whole movie is colored by the grim knowledge that the life of little, bespectacled Dawn ended badly, by her own hand. She’s held up as a warning for this movie’s protagonist, Dawn’s cousin, Aviva. Note that the name is a palindrome—spelled the same way backward and forward.
Let me describe Aviva. She’s black, heavy, skinny, white, and redheaded. She’s also a boy. Plus, she’s Jennifer Jason Leigh. Which is to say that Solondz has cast her with seven different actors to encourage us to identify with her regardless of our race or body type—and, on an even deeper level, to suggest the immutability of personality. A student director I knew once tried the same trick with David Mamet’s Woyzeck-like saga Edmund, and it worked like gangbusters to make that none-too-bright protagonist seem like Everyman. Solondz brings the gimmick off, too—although it helps that he directs each actor to have the same mopey-dopey posture and delivery.
In the first episode, right after Dawn’s funeral, Aviva is a young African-American girl (Emani Sledge) who tells her mom, Joyce (Ellen Barkin), that she doesn’t want to end up like her cousin; she wants to have lots and lots of babies so that she’ll always feel loved. A few years later, a post-pubescent Aviva (Valerie Shusterov) single-mindedly gets herself knocked up, whereupon the pressure from her parents to abort the baby is relentless and hysterical. Joyce even tells Aviva (now Hannah Freiman) that the credit for their special mother-daughter relationship belongs partly to “little Henry”—the child she aborted when Aviva was three. At the clinic, the anti-abortion protesters fall to their knees and exhort her to turn back, but Joyce guides the dazed Aviva into the doctor’s waiting stirrups.
Joyce’s “Henry” monologue is a doozy; I found my pleasure at seeing Barkin (she hasn’t been much in evidence since marrying a billionaire—the biggest loss to movies this side of Debra Winger) mitigated by my horror at the brainlessly self-absorbed monster she was playing. The voice that Solondz gives to his characters isn’t flamboyantly comic, but it’s full of easy condescension and apt to flare up suddenly into cruel caricature. He underscores the mockery with a la-la-la vocal out of Rosemary’s Baby. You can’t always tell what he thinks would be the greater injury: aborting a child or bringing it into a world like this.
I won’t spell out what happens at that clinic—only that Aviva’s subsequent odyssey takes her right into the bosom of a floridly Jesus-centric conclave overseen by a dimply ray of sunshine known as, well, Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk). In this, the centerpiece of Palindromes, Aviva is played by Sharon Wilkins, an obese young African-American actress with a classically pretty face. Mama Sunshine’s house teems with smiling, singing, dancing disabled kids—real ones, in many cases. Solondz doesn’t photograph them insensitively (he is rather tender with them), but there’s a circus-menagerie quality to the entire episode that goes to the heart of his world-of-freaks aesthetic. Mama Sunshine turns them into smiling zombies, while downstairs, in the basement, the men-folk don’t just bewail all those aborted fetuses. They take justice into their own hands.
There is so much “transgressive” imagery in Palindromes that it’s hard to know where to begin: the huge Wilkins walking through the woods with a little boy (Alexander Brickel); the sex between the 15-year-old Aviva (Rachel Corr) and a visibly conflicted trucker (Stephen Adly Guirgis); the pale, white, blind girl talking about her drug-addict mother’s attempt to abort her with a coat hanger; the mountain of garbage containing dead fetuses in plastic bags. It’s almost a relief when Jennifer Jason Leigh, the only familiar Aviva, appears: We’ve seen her dissolving on camera so many times that her presence is rather soothing.
Just when you’re wondering what it all means, Solondz brings on an accused pedophile (Matthew Faber) to articulate a worldview that, if not precisely the writer-director’s, accounts for what we’ve seen. Humans are not just limited; they’re incapable of transcending their limitations. There’s no learning from mistakes, no awareness of anything outside one’s own warped subjectivity, no epiphanies—unless you count as an epiphany the realization that you’re never going to have an epiphany. Backward and forward, it’s all the same.
Well, that’s one philosophy. And it should be said that Solondz is an equal-opportunity misanthrope, mocking the garishly insensitive rah-rah-abortion mom, the thoughtlessly fanatical opposition, and everyone in between. Only the children have souls, but the children are hideously vulnerable and prone to being programmed, choreographed, and manipulated like puppets.
Palindromes is a thesis movie, almost a manifesto for despair, and certainly worthy of the aforementioned NR-DS rating. Except that its bad vibes don’t linger. Have dinner and smart conversation with friends, hug a child, pick up a good book—and poof, life returns with a happy vengeance.