2 ½ stars (out of 4)
Are audiences ready for a dark comedy on abortion and domestic terrorism in which the leading rolea runaway, pregnant adolescent New Jersey girl named Avivais played by seven different actresses and one actor?
Todd Solondz's "Palindromes" is as bizarre, provocative and almost deliberately off-putting an indie picture as anything that's popped up in theaters recently. Somewhat in the vein of Solondz's previous sardonic sagas, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness," it's a film that tweaks some extremely bleak satire out of the malaise of American suburban life and the latent violence of the blue state/red state cultural divide.
Yet, weird and discomfiting as it is, "Palindromes" never insults the intelligence or hops on the usual commercial or political bandwagons. With deadpan humor, it keeps blind-siding its audience, leading them down dark psychic alleys.
The darkness breaks out in very first scene: the funeral of Dawn Wiener, central character of "Welcome to the Dollhouse." The now-deceased Dawn was the alienated, unpopular little suburban outsider played by Heather Matarazzoand her eulogists include "Dollhouse" confidante and older brother Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber), whom, we discover, is suspected of being a child molester.
Not content with joking about death and perversion, Solondz quickly opens up his edgy main theme. Little Aviva, Dawn's cousin and 6 at the time of Dawn's last rites (first played by Emani Sledge), yearns to be a mother, a consuming desire that will transform her life.
As played by a septet of actresses and one actorSledge, Valerie Shusterov, Hannah Freiman, Rachel Corr, Will Denton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sharon Wilkins and Shayna LevineAviva ambles through a series of unexplained transformations and increasingly disturbing vignettes. In the second episode, she becomes pregnant at 13, thanks to self-centered filmmaker-wannabe neighbor Judah (played by two actors, Robert Agri and John Gemberling). Later, she's pushed toward an abortion by her finicky mother, Joyce Victor (played by Ellen Barkin, in a brilliantly nasty vivisection of bourgeois hypocrisy).
Rebelling at her mom's agenda, Aviva runs away. After some Huck Finn-like peregrinations and a brief sexual liaison with an anxious truck driver (Stephen Adly Guirgis), she's adopted by a smiley heartland do-gooder community led by beamingly maternal Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), who cares for a motley band of smiley handicapped kidsand acts as cover for a band of anti-abortion terrorists (who target abortionists for death).
After opening up this well of passion, Solondz keeps going, deadpan and outrageous, to the end. Along the way, he provides no explanation as to why Aviva keeps shifting from one actress to the next, a wild variety of sexes, ages, races and body types. There's no explanation for this (and none for the fact that actor Guirgis is playing multiple roles).
But the multiple casting of Aviva universalizes her plight, while creating a hallucinatory landscape in which we can't identify with the main characteror anyone else. Solondz uses pastel homespun "once upon a time" title cards to start each new episode, giving the film a sarcastic resemblance to a cheap kiddie TV show. But the message of the movie remains deliberately ambivalent. Is he attacking the two-faced liberal suburbanites or the sincere but deadly heartland terrorists? Which is worse, hypocrisy or fanaticism?
Solondz does an effective job of skewering both sides, though he understands the liberal suburbanites much better than he does the Midwestern fanatics, who are played like TV sitcom heartlanders with a screw loose. The cast achieves a kind of uniform tongue-in-cheek quality of obsessive innocence or devious guile, with Barkin and Monk taking acting honors.
The title "Palindromes" refers to a phrase that reads the same forwards or backwards, such as that supposed Napoleonic rumination, "Able was I, ere I saw Elba," or the name Aviva. The suggestion is that humans and lives can be read the same backward or forward, that we're trapped in an inescapably absurd personal destiny.
This isn't the sort of theme or message you usually get out of the movies, even offbeat indies, but Solondz never flinches. A filmmaker of quiet integrity, dark wit and smart pessimism, he always nags at the critical conscience. When I saw "Palindromes" at the Toronto Film Festival last year, I didn't like it much, but it stuck in my mind, took on a life of its own. I still don't like it much, but I respect itbecause it's the kind of film most American filmmakers won't make, bristling with the kind of issues and questions they hesitate to face.
Directed and written by Todd Solondz; photographed by Tom Richmond; edited by Mollie Goldstein, Kevin Messman; production designed by Dave Doernberg; music by Nathan Larson; produced by Mike S. Ryan, Derrick Tseng. A Wellspring release; opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre Theatres. Running time: 1:40. No MPAA rating; Adult (for sexuality, language and mature thematic material).
Joyce Victor - Ellen Barkin
Aviva - Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emani Sledge, Valerie Shusterov, Hannah Freiman, Rachel Corr, Will Denton, Sharon Wilkins, Shayna Levine
Joe/Earl/Bob - Stephen Adly Guirgis
Steve Victor - Richard Masur
Mama Sunshine - Debra Monk
Judah - Robert Agri, John Gemberling
Dr. Fleischer - Stephen Singer