2004, NR, 100 min. Directed by Todd Solondz. Starring Ellen Barkin, Richard Masur, Debra Monk, Stephen Adly-Guirgis, Richard Riehle, Stephen Singer.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., May 6, 2005
You could call this film repugnant and abrasive, and Solondz would probably agree. Nominally the story of Aviva, a 13-year-old girl who longs for a baby – and the cousin of Dawn Wiener, the hapless victim of Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse – Palindromes is an experiment in tone and narrative and moral themes; goosing the viewer is its mission. Eight different actresses play Aviva, from a tongue-thrusting 4-year-old (Emani Sledge) to Jennifer Jason Leigh – an old surrealist’s trick borrowed from Luis Buñuel – and the film veers wildly between fairy-tale formalism and motel-room melodrama. There’s an intended pregnancy that ends in abortion; there’s a quest for love; there’s ham-fisted satirizing of ostensibly progressive and caring yuppie parents (Barkin and Masur) who possess little genuine interest in their spawn; and, of course, there’s a commune of differently abled, cast-off children presided over by an empire-waisted fundamentalist Christian (Monk) named "Mama Sunshine." (Her drop cookies are known as "Jesus tears.") If you thought Solondz hated the conformist suburban sausage mill of New Jersey, where 'N Sync tickets and Gap accounts substitute for caring and there’s a pedophile behind every carefully tended shrubbery, wait until he gets his hands on the Midwest. The scenes with Mama Sunshine’s gimpy brood evince the bitterest sort of cynicism. The family chortles as one, a laugh track to a sitcom from the deepest reaches of hell, as the children bleat out their perversely cheerful dialogue: "Pass the freedom toast!" "I’m epileptic!" "They saved me from perdition!" Then Solondz assembles them for not one but several song-and-dance numbers (as "The Sunshine Singers"); with cordless mics and to the best of their various abilities, the cast bops to treacly pop-idol tunes about damnation and salvation. The point seems to be that there’s no refuge from the hypocritical tortures people visit upon one another – not geographically, not ideologically, not for a tongue-thrusting 4-year-old, nor for Jennifer Jason Leigh – and the innocents among us are irrevocably screwed. Of course it’s provocative; of course it’s barbed and wicked and even bleakly funny; of course it’s audacious, and no one else would even try it. But for that accomplishment Solondz need not necessarily be praised. He’s done all this before, often more effectively. (Though Aviva, in all her forms, is a sympathetic character, no one in the film is half as absorbing as Dylan Baker’s pederast from 1998’s Happiness, who truly embodies the moral ambiguities Solondz strives so compulsively to depict.) Beating up the viewer with grotesquerie is a worthy goal only when there’s a point to it, such as self-examination. Here Solondz’s ruthless pessimism is such a meaningless stance that he seems in danger of becoming the Mr. Lifto of American independent cinema: shocking but certainly not trenchant, to the point where you could almost put him on the shelf for the moralizing hypocrites, alongside Mama Sunshine and Barkin’s abortion-pushing mother. Pile on the technique all you will, for Palindromes is in all its moments a lovely and well-executed film, with the pointillist composition of a storybook, but this puzzle box is empty. (See austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2005-03-11/screens_feature6.html for more on Palindromes and an interview with Solondz.)