Stuck in oscillating misery: the film, the characters, the audience
Todd Solondz's thoroughly unpleasant new film is an exercise in stunt casting; its only purpose, seemingly, is to raise eyebrows. Eight performers in turn...
Seattle Times movie critic
Todd Solondz's thoroughly unpleasant new film is an exercise in stunt casting; its only purpose, seemingly, is to raise eyebrows. Eight performers in turn play the same role: that of a 13-year-old girl who desperately wants to have a baby. They are not playing Aviva at different stages in her life — the film takes place over a short time. Rather, they are playing, I suppose, different aspects of Aviva. They do not remotely resemble each other; indeed, some of them (such as 43-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh, mumbly as ever) do not remotely resemble a 13-year-old girl.
And what purpose does all this serve? Well, the constant switching keeps us from becoming emotionally involved in the story, which is just as well. Otherwise, the point of the stunt escapes me. Solondz, the subject of much indie-film buzz in the '90s for "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness," continues his focus on miserably unhappy characters and the grotesquerie of suburbia. (Dawn Wiener, the teenage main character of "Welcome to the Dollhouse," is alluded to in "Palindromes" — apparently she's died, obese and pregnant from date rape; it's as if Solondz has kicked her to the curb.)
The plot of "Palindromes" is clearly designed to shock: Aviva, at 13, becomes pregnant, is forced to have an abortion by her parents, runs off, has sex with an adult man in a cheap motel, and is shortly afterward enfolded into the home of Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), an evangelical Christian who takes in abandoned children with birth defects. The children, nonactors all, recite their lines in singsong; you wonder how much of the movie they understand. It's another device that takes you out of the movie; as the children's performances are so clearly artificial — another stunt, to little purpose.
Except for a few poignant moments with the actors — Sharon Wilkins, an adult actor who plays Aviva in the movie's midsection, finds an aching, breathy wistfulness — there's nothing here that we want to get close to; the movie keeps pushing us away. Solondz doesn't want his audience to be comfortable, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but there's a difference between squirming that pushes you to a different place and makes you think about it, and just squirming.
The film does evoke a powerful response, which might be confused with powerful filmmaking. It's certainly shocking to see Aviva, played by a very young girl, in bed with the sleazebag man at the motel. But there's nothing profound or artful about it; nor do we need to ponder whether this is right or wrong or even interesting — it's just shock for shock's sake. It doesn't linger in the imagination the way, say, David Lynch's shocking content often does; rather, you just want it to go away.
As its title implies (palindromes are elaborately explained at one point in the story, a bit condescendingly), "Palindromes" ends where it begins, a back-and-forth journey to an unhappy nowhere. "No one ever changes," intones one character, in heavy-handed reference to the ever-morphing Aviva. She switches bodies but remains miserable; as, alas, does the audience.Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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