Phil on Film Index

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Review - Palindromes

With only three pictures to his name, Todd Solondz has forged a reputation as a director unafraid of tackling big issues. Indeed, he seems to revel in it; making unpleasant characters sympathetic and taking a frank approach to such controversial subjects as paedophilia, racism, rape, murder and homosexuality. With his fourth feature, Palindromes, Solondz ventures into even murkier waters.
His film is the tale of Aviva, a 13 year-old who is determined to have a baby. She has sex with a local boy, becomes pregnant and runs away from home after being forced into an abortion by her parents (Ellen Barkin and Richard Masur). She hits the road still determined to get pregnant and calling herself ‘Henrietta’, the name she would have given her terminated child. Along the way Aviva has a one-night stand with a trucker named Joe (Stephen Adly Guirgis) and finally ends up with a Christian group run by Mama and Bo Sunshine (Debra Monk and Walter Bobbie). Here she meets up with Joe again and becomes involved in a murder attempt on a local abortionist.

Palindromes may divide viewers even more so than any of Solondz’s previous work. Some viewers will applaud the director’s bravery and his original approach to this touchy subject matter while others will be offended and angered by the film. A few months after seeing Palindromes, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

The most interesting aspect of Solondz’s approach is the use of multiple actresses, and one actor, of varying age, size and colour to play Aviva. This approach may be intended to depict Aviva as a kind of ‘everyperson’, a character we can all relate to, or perhaps it’s a safety net for Solondz, to protect him from charges of exploiting a young actress. Either way, it doesn’t really work. The casting trick is strange enough to keep the viewer interested while also keeping them at a distance to the film. I never felt engaged with Aviva’s progress because she never came alive as a character for me.

The final actress to play Aviva is 41 year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh and her sad-eyed, defeated performance suggests that Aviva’s journey has taken its toll. This might have been an interesting idea for Solondz to explore, making the actors change appearance according to Aviva’s experiences on the road. But the actors change places with no rhyme or reason, as if the director himself was unsure of what point his gimmicky casting was trying to make. Solondz fills his supporting cast with oddballs, not least in Mama Sunshine’s hypocritical Christian retreat, but the director typically takes a sympathetic stance instead of mocking them and gets strong performances throughout.

But what is Solondz trying to say here? I’m not sure. In fact I don’t think he’s trying to say any one thing. Solondz uses Palindromes to explore the extremes which a touchy subject pushes people to and questions whether a child caught in the middle of these conflicting viewpoints can maintain their humanity. It’s also an extension of Solondz's favourite theme, unhappy souls searching for hope in a loveless world. Palindromes is a film to provoke discussion, to get a reaction, but it doesn’t add much to the abortion debate and it must be classed as a failed experiment.

This is a more interesting film than Storytelling, but it withers in the shadow of Solondz’s magnificent Happiness. That film showed how adept he is at handling difficult moments with subtlety and skill (paedophile Dylan Baker’s confession to his teenage son is one of the most powerful film sequences I’ve seen in recent years) and nothing here comes close. The lack of emotional involvement in Palindromes is hugely disappointing given the emotive nature of the subject matter.

So where does Solondz go from here? He’s a filmmaker who’s full of ideas, writes witty scripts and handles actors well but he hasn’t really advanced much from Happiness, and all of his subsequent efforts will inevitably suffer in comparison to that film. Palindromes remains a thoughtful, daring, shocking and often hilarious film but it feels tired and unfocused, and a underwhelming offering from one of American cinema’s most distinctive voices.