"Palindromes" begins at the funeral of Dawn Wiener, the hapless heroine of Todd Solondz's second theatrical release, with a video camera trained on her pine coffin as her brother delivers a backhanded eulogy. Dawn has put an end to the almanac of bummers that was her life by committing suicide, and an insensitive comment by her sister Missy (whom we never see but whose toxic pronouncements bookend the film like a pair of kicks to the head) leads Aviva, their achingly insecure 13-year-old cousin, to fret that she's headed down a similar path.
After the funeral, Aviva's well-meaning but scarily blinkered mother (Ellen Barkin) tries to comfort her by pointing out the differences between the girl and her cousin: Dawn's parents didn't love her, and maybe she shouldn't have grown obese, or avoided the dermatologist. "So I'm really not like her?" the little girl trills, heartened. "No! You are the cutest little bundle of love in the whole world, no matter what anyone says!"
Say what you will about Solondz, he's an artist with a worldview. And it's not rosy. In "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Happiness" and "Storytelling," Solondz challenged facile moral judgments by rooting around in the darkest, dankest crevices of humanity. In his fifth feature, he emerges clutching a grand unifying theory of human behavior in his fist and drops the whole fatalistic bag of cheese on your lap. "Palindromes" may be his darkest movie yet, not because of what happens in it — child molestation, a botched abortion, murder, etc. — but because, this time, he implicates everyone. And not just socially or narratively, but on a universal and even quantum level. "Palindromes" is determinism for depressives.
Buoyed by her mother's pep talk, young Aviva (played, in the opening chapter of the film, by Emani Sledge), a chubby black girl whose tongue flops out of her mouth when she speaks, announces that she wants to have a baby so that she'll always have someone to love. Then she sets out to make it happen. Her first opportunity presents itself in the oleaginous form of Judah (Robert Agri), who later changes his name to Otto (after which he is played by John Gemberling), the porn-obsessed son of her parents' friends. Judah obliges her request, and things get worse from there. Eventually Aviva embarks on a Huck Finn-like voyage over the course of which she hugs plenty but learns nothing.
"Palindromes" is divided into chapters, which Solondz parcels out to the eight different actors who play Aviva. In ensuing chapters, the plump black girl is replaced by a chubby brunet, then by a slim redhead, another brunet, a young boy, an obese African American woman and, finally, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Part of the idea is to toy with notions of audience identification. (And, perhaps, audience perceptions of Jennifer Jason Leigh.) But mostly, the distancing device underscores the film's central question: Our culture is steeped in the mythology of transformation, transcendence and reinvention, but is it really possible for people to fundamentally change who they are? Do motherhood, religion, plastic surgery, money or therapy have the power to save us from ourselves?
The final, uncontested word on the subject goes to Dawn's brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), the ostracized science nerd and Zen dork from "Welcome to the Dollhouse," who leaves us with this closing thought: Life is the result of a senseless crash derby between genetics and random events, and it's our constant, doomed struggle to take control of the wheel that's at the root of all suffering.
Unlike the trumped-up provocations Neil LaBute is forever trying to pass off as polemic, "Palindromes" is not a morally null film. But it is a film that ponders the possibility that morality may be null in a universe ruled by chaos. As depressing as it is hard to watch, "Palindromes" is also consistently, horrifyingly funny and sharp-witted, and the darker and more well-observed its humor, the more it belies the director's unsentimental, even grudging empathy for his fellow DNA monkeys. There's something intrinsically humanistic about the question he's asking: Without the belief in human perfectibility, would humankind still be lovable?
Thwarted by her parents, Aviva hitches a ride out of town with a pedophilic trucker named Joe (Stephen Adly Guirgis) and spends the night with him in a roadside motel. Not only does the encounter — which is horrific — fail to send her flying back into the familial fold, but such is her buoyant, morning-after mood that the scene is set to a cheesily upbeat romantic pop song. Nothing, in Solondz's view, is quite as chilling as pure, unadulterated faith, hope and optimism — especially when unsullied by reason or reality.
If Aviva's romantic notions about love and motherhood give pause, they have nothing on the relentlessly cheerful Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a born-again Christian matron who collects disabled orphans and eventually takes Aviva in. The I'm OK, You're OK, Up With Jesus vibe at the Sunshine house raises nape-hairs — long before its revealed that the family engages in some seriously un-Christian activities — because they're so smug in their sense of their own goodness, and so intolerant of everything else.
If Aviva is fundamentally incorruptible, it's not because she's innocent but because, like her name, she's essentially the same any way you look at her. Wherever she goes, however she looks, there she is, doomed or destined to trace the same patterns. It's a lesson the recidivist Joe, once he's cornered by the cops, learns the hard way, wailing in frustration, "How many times can I be born again?" Does it have to be spelled out? Joe's real name is Bob.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Strong adult themes, including pedophilia, abortion and murder
Ellen Barkin...Joyce Victor
Matthew Faber...Mark Wiener
Emani Sledge...Dawn Aviva
Valerie Shusterov...Judah Aviva
Hannah Freiman...Henry Aviva
Rachel Corr...Henrietta Aviva
Will Denton...Huckleberry Aviva
Shayna Levine...Bob Aviva
Jennifer Jason Leigh...Mark Aviva
Stephen Adly Guirgis...Joe/Earl/Bob
Debra Monk...Mama Sunshine
A Wellspring release. Director Todd Solondz. Producer Derrick Tseng, Mike S. Ryan. Screenplay by Solondz. Running time: 100 minutes.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun