With 1996's "Welcome to the Dollhouse," 1998's "Happiness
," and 2001's "Storytelling," writer-director Todd Solondz's filmography has played like an alternately scathing, painful and satirically funny indictment of the modern day suburban landscape. His latest potentially controversial opus, this one entitled "Palindromes," is no different in tone, moving with abandon through harshly serious material that, nonetheless, always has time for a sly comic zinger and some fairly broad set-pieces. Solondz's work is challenging, breaks barriers, and certainly is an acquired taste. Regrettably, "Palindromes" is the filmmaker's first effort that has not satiated my taste buds.
Credit Solondz for having a lot of ideas, but discredit him for using the same vein of taboo subject matteri.e., child molesters, abortionists, sexually active but naive childrento try to make his points. Most disturbing of all, and despite all of its ambitious singular segments, "Palindromes" may be one of the biggest missed opportunities of the year, an exceedingly pointless curiosity that simultaneously has a lot to say and nothing at all. In a weakly developed script that throws together bits from all of his previous movies without forming an original identity of its own, whatever Solondz wanted to say with his story of a 13-year-old girl's endless search to have a baby has gotten lost in the shuffle of casting gimmickry and an aimless narrative that goes nowhere.
A loose sequel-cum-spinoff of "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Palindromes" opens with the funeral of that former film's protagonist, Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo, unseen), whose depressing life has ended in suicide. Dawn's 13-year-old cousin, Aviva (played throughout by a revolving door of eight different actors), becomes obsessed with the idea of having a baby after this shattering event when her own mother, Joyce (an excellent Ellen Barkin), informs her that Dawn was not treated by her parents with the sort of love she deserved. When Aviva's wish comes true and she gets pregnant following her first sexual encounter, Joyce insists on getting her an abortion. The procedure, however, renders Aviva unable to have any future childrena fact her parents opt not to tell herand so she runs away, embarking on a journey to find acceptance and once again get impregnated. Also figuring into the story is Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a religious caregiver with an adopted brood of disabled children who takes Aviva in, and Earl (Stephen Adly-Guirgis), a born-again Christian who also happens to be an insatiable pedophile.
In choosing to portray the young Aviva through the eyes of eight distinct actors, including a few real-life teens, a boy (Will Denton), an obese black woman (Sharon Wilkins), and a forty-something (Jennifer Jason Leigh), writer-director Todd Solondz yearns to show that Aviva's life could also be the life of just about anyone. It's little more than a clever stunt, but it surprisingly works; although each performer gets limited screen time, and a few of them are obviously untrained actors who give stilted turns, the viewer is able to see each of them as the same person and become emotionally involved in her ordeal. Caring about Aviva, though, frustratingly turns out to be all for nought; she is a thin, shapeless character who reacts to her surroundings rather than takes charge, and doesn't seem to have any thoughts in her head other than that she wants a baby. Her stay with Mama Sunshine and her clan is fine for a few laughs as Solondz takes easy potshots at organized religion and physical and mental disabilities, but wears out its welcome quickly and doesn't serve much discernible purpose. Another subplot involving the murder of an abortion doctor and the accidental death of an innocent child who gets caught in the crossfire is just plain mean without taking responsibility for its actions.
The strongest scenes are its quietest ones, many of them involving the late Dawn's sad older brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), who befriends Aviva before getting wrongfully accused of molesting children. His speech during her funeral is poignant and bitterly humorous, earning a greater impact for those who know and remember "Welcome to the Dollhouse." And as for the charges against Mark, how does Aviva know he is innocent? Her brazen response: "Because pedophiles love children." Also taking on a kind of darkly magical lyricism is the picture's fairy tale elements, with Aviva making her way through the forbidding forest, finally coming upon a series of people who are potential saviors, as well as threats. Mama Sunshine's family of kids are the seven dwarfs, and the pedophile Earl is the big bad wolf, both suggested without being spelled out. It doesn't have much of an impact on the film as a whole, or its various problems, but it is a welcome aside.
Ultimately, "Palindromes" ends up close to where it started, with Aviva having not changed or grown a single bit from start to finish, still childishly wanting a baby and seeking companionship in the company of older, albeit kind, deviants. This confused lack of story and character movement may be a palindrome in and of itself, but one also doesn't need to move past the opening ten minutes to know where it has gone by its final ten minutesnot anyplace special. Writer-director Todd Solondz is a talented, ballsy, fiercely independent filmmaker whose work is worth looking forward to, but, sadly, "Palindromes" is his first significant cinematic failure, a pitch-black fable twice as shallow and trite as it is intriguing. Even his most fervent supporters may have difficulty drumming up much enthusiasm after this decidedly wasteful 100 minutes has taken its toll.