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A palindrome is a word or sentence that reads the same way backwards and forwards, and this concept is the controlling metaphor for “Palindromes”, the latest provocation from writer/director Todd Solondz.   It’s a comedy about all the usual stuff: born-again Christianity, abortion, suicide, and pedophilia.   But then, it’s always been Solondz’s M.O. to make comedy from stuff that would make any reasonable person squeamish.  

The film tells the story of young, dumb Aviva (notice anything about that name?), whom we first meet having a heart-to-heart with her mother (Ellen Barkin).   Aviva’s cousin Dawn has committed suicide and Aviva exuberantly expresses her wish to not turn out like Dawn and to have many, many babies one day.   In her early teens she becomes pregnant and though she’s fiercely determined to keep the baby, her parents force her to have an abortion.   She runs away from home, eventually falling in with a fundamentalist Christian household of disabled young people and their foster parents, Mama Sunshine and her husband Bo.   To say more would be to say too much, but it certainly sounds like a laugh riot so far, no?

But hold!   The intriguing device here is that Aviva is played by eight different actresses!   Solondz has said that his inspiration for this idea was TV shows in which a role is taken over by a new actor and yet nobody on the show notices that the character looks different.   Similarly, no one in this movie sees Aviva’s changes even though from sequence to sequence she is embodied variously by an obese black woman, a scrawny pre-teen, a middle-aged woman, etc.   It occurs to me that this is a purely cinematic device: there’s no way this film could be done as a novel.  
Who is the “real” Aviva?   We find that we cannot say.   Or rather, we cannot say what the “real” Aviva looks like: is she fat or thin, black or white?   The only thing we know for sure is her age: she’s in her early teens.   It’s remarkable how each actress playing Aviva stays in character, down to speaking with the same tone and speech patterns.    

‘Palindromes’ mocks its characters, and none come in for fiercer mocking than the born-again Christians.   Now there’s no doubt that fundamentalism is a scourge upon the land and represents human beings at their worst.   But really, born-agains are easy targets and have been amply skewered before.   On the other hand, ‘Palindromes’ recognizes that a fundie often has dark periods in his or her past that account for the fervor, revealing that Mama Sunshine was molested as a child.   More troubling is that the film seems to want us to laugh at the disabled youth as they mouth ridiculous banalities at the dinner table or sing their saccharine Christian rock songs.   It appears that Solondz has used disabled actors for these roles, but are we laughing with them or at them?

Was I completely engrossed by the film?   Yes.   Can I in good conscience recommend it here?   No.   It is my kind of flick in that it leaves an itch in your head that can’t quite be satisfied regardless of how much you scratch.   For example, how would the film be different if only one actress played the main character?   It certainly wouldn’t be as funny, since much of the humor comes from the discrepancy between the Aviva that we see and the way she’s perceived by the other characters.   What are we to make of the myriad twisted forms of love for children on display here?   And on and on the questions come.

- May 21, 2005


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