In the age of relentless satire, Todd Solondz couldn’t be a filmmaker at a better time. His uncompromised transmissions arrive to a market that is learning to embrace the truly absurd – we, for the most part, can unflinchingly handle the blackest of human commentaries and are willing to have our most cherished conventions utterly upended. The downfall of this, though, is that brutal honesty is often dismissed in favor of creating more fully realized caricatures.
While independent directors seem to gravitate to so-called controversial themes like moths to a flame, we often end up with films that seek not necessarily to be artistically accomplished, but rather to strip-mine politically and morally charged subject matter to create something, more times than not, to simply laugh at.
This is not the case with Solondz’s latest, the bittersweet, riotous, ridiculous and altogether confounding “Palindromes.” The film centers around a meek 13-year-old girl called Aviva who’s only goal is to have lots of babies, to the initial delight of her perennially weepy and coddling mother (exquisitely portrayed by Ellen Barkin). But when the barely adolescent Aviva gets pregnant, her impossibly liberal parents put her on the fast track to abortion. After the complicated procedure, a crestfallen Aviva runs away.
What follows is an Odyssean journey through the sometimes backward realm of human determination, as Aviva falls in with a “family” of destitute Jesus freaks, shepherded by the matronly Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk). As Aviva becomes a part of the group (all children who are retarded and handicapped), she finds herself committed more and more to her innocent, dreamlike resolve. Even when she should be at odds to relate to the pro-life proselytizing, Aviva simply integrates it and marches on, delusional or not.
Then there is the decidedly post-modern structure, evidenced by the multitude of actresses that portray the protagonist. Ranging from slight, mousy white girls to grossly obese black girls to Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aviva is anything but what her name suggests-a palindrome.
The structure could’ve easily been the undoing of the film, yet the cast changes are expertly separated by chapter headings that are reminiscent of the changing years in a baby book. Each portrayal conveys a new aspect of the deceptively simple Aviva as she reconciles with her changing surroundings, and we are forced to ask how our sympathies change based on her appearance. The conundrum of a character who is the same backwards and forwards, mixed with the rotating portrayal, doesn’t find resolution until the end, in the form of a disjointed boy (who can only be the manifestation of Solondz himself) who delivers a sermon on the immutability of life that comes across as utterly sublime.
The result is a dreamy voyage that, surprisingly, leaves no questions unanswered – simply because no questions are ever asked.
Even though Solondz chooses abortion and Christ (those time-honored indie film trump cards) to weave his tale, his priority is never to exploit maniacal zealots, but rather to shed light on the sad figures that fall through the cracks of modern dystopia. Solondz’s characters have singularity of vision, and each one is unshakable in their quest for salvation.
But there are no universal truths here, just a terrifically anticlimactic document of meaning and life. “Palindromes” will certainly appeal to fans of Solondz’s other movies (“Welcome to the Dollhouse” heroine Dawn Wiener provides a lot of symmetry to this film as an absent presence), but, if approached with an open mind, this film has universal appeal.