PALINDROMES written and directed by Todd Solondz, with Ellen Barkin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stephen Adly-Guirgis, Sharon Wilkins and Debra Monk. A THINKFilm release. 100 minutes. Opens Friday (May 13). For venues and times, see Movies, page 102. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Todd Solondz will never direct a superhero film.
The fiercely independent director has pursued the road less travelled by most filmmakers. Since breaking out with his Sundance-acclaimed Welcome To The Dollhouse in 1995, he's continually challenged his thinking audience with darkly funny, morally complex tales of misfits in America.
Consider his titles: Happiness, Storytelling and now his most recent film, Palindromes. They sound more like the titles of elliptical New Yorker short stories than of anything you might find on a multiplex marquee.
Even among his peers he's a bit of a loner. He doesn't attempt the Altmanesque works of a P. T. Anderson or the surreal, hallucinatory worlds of a Darren Aronofsky. His films remain small in scope and rooted in the loser-next-door soil of New Jersey.
Palindromes tells the story of Aviva, a young Garden State girl whose sole ambition is to become a mom. After the son of family friends impregnates her - in what's arguably the least titillating sex scene on celluloid - Aviva's parents force her to have an abortion, which makes her leave home on a quest to find some sort of happiness.
Solondz's boldest choice was the casting of eight actors - young and old, black and white - in the role of Aviva.
"After Dollhouse, all sorts of people came up to me - from a beautiful model to a big construction worker - and said they related to the character of Dawn Wiener," says Solondz in his whiny, squeaky New Jersey-accented voice, on the phone from Manhattan.
"I realized anyone from eight to 80 could play an episode in this young girl's life. Some experiences are universal. But film is a literal medium. I could never cast eight actors in one role if I were working with a serious budget. No one would allow it. A small budget frees you up because no one has any hopes. I can't disappoint at the box office."
Dawn, by the way, has been killed off at the beginning of Palindromes; she's commited suicide. (Note: Heather Matarazzo, who played the original Dawn, turned down Solondz's invitation to reprise the role in this film and Storytelling.) Aviva is Dawn's cousin, and the inheritor of her somewhat naive hope that things will turn out all right for a plain-looking girl in beauty-obsessed America.
Social determinism is a big theme here. The title refers to words that remain the same spelled backwards and forwards, and Aviva (note the name) leaves home to become a mom (another palindrome), only to return at the end like a boomerang.
As her controlling mother (Ellen Barkin) says when asked if Aviva will ever be beautiful, "You'll always be you." A few moments later, we see the girl listening to self-esteem tapes.
Clearly, Solondz is sending up our makeover-obsessed culture.
"Self-improvement is a religion here," he says. "People want to change things without accepting their realities. We're taught when young that we can do or be anything, but that's an illusion. We're defined by our limitations."
Solondz calls Palindromes his most politically charged and morally complicated film yet. Neither his pro-choice nor his pro-life characters are spared his savage ironies. And he wrote it before the big red state/blue state debate.
"But when I finished it, it became so clear how much the movie is a reflection of that great divide," he says.
The centerpiece of the film is a scene in the home of Mama and Bo Sunshine, two born-again Christians who've taken in society's unwanted, mostly children with birth defects. One child has Down's syndrome, another has no arms. In the movie's most discomfiting scene, the children sing and dance to a Christian rock song.
"Why should children with disabilities not be included in satire and comedy and musical numbers?" asks Solondz.
"The most moving moment of the entire filmmaking process was watching these children perform. They took such pride and joy in their numbers. But then you think about this song they're singing. There's the rub. That's the friction that's emblematic of the dynamic my movies operate in."
PALINDROMES (Todd Solondz) Rating: NNNN
Palindromes is Todd Solondz's darkly comic look at the morally ambiguous territory between the blue and red states.
Innocent, 13-year-old Aviva wants to become a mom, and when her self-planned pregnancy gets botched by her hypocritical liberal parents (including Ellen Barkin in a controlled, angry performance), she runs away. What she finds in America's fabled heartland ranges from a guilt-ridden truck driver (Stephen Adly-Guirgis) to a seemingly protective home for misfit kids run by two smiling born-again Christians. Having learned a lesson, she ends up where she began. Her life becomes a palindrome.
Solondz's morally complex tone is note perfect. His use of eight actors (including Jennifer Jason Leigh) to play Aviva pays off, as does his attempt to structure his film like a palindrome.
Pay special attention to the score, which cribs from Rosemary's Baby and Valley Of The Dolls. Fitting, because in some ways Palindromes is like the offspring of a domestic horror story and a trashy girl-on-her-own tale.