Like his previous films— “Happiness” and the under-appreciated “Storytelling”—Todd Solondz’s bold new film “Palindromes” tackles a controversial subject with a trenchant wit that is equally likely to offend audiences as amuse them. Other viewers might find themselves simply perplexed.
Aviva, a 12-year-old girl who is looking for unconditional love, wants to have a baby. Aviva is played by various actresses of different ethnicities in a series of interlocking sequences. The heroines dress similarly—in belly shirts, that reveal their naked, potentially pregnant, stomachs—and speak in the same high, breathy voice, a daring exploit by director Solondz that works. Largely unknown actresses play Aviva until Jennifer Jason Leigh picks up the role late in the film, but the character’s humanity is seamlessly conveyed throughout the film.
The story opens with the funeral for Dawn Weiner, the heroine of Solondz’s breakout film, “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” The darkly funny eulogy by Dawn’s brother, Mark, sets the tone for what’s to come.
In the next scene, Joyce (Ellen Barkin) is comforting her daughter Aviva who decides she does not want to grow up and be like Dawn. The disquieting vignette that follows has a different Aviva visiting friends of her family, and having sex with their son. The sequence after that features another Aviva playing out the consequences of the previous segment, and starts the film’s provocative abortion debate in earnest. In what may be the film’s highlight, Joyce reacts to her daughter’s pregnancy and then tries to persuade Aviva not to have the child.
During these first twenty minutes, “Palindromes” is an absolutely riveting film, with dead-on observations and biting satire. However, sustaining such terse drama is a high-wire act that Solondz abandons, namely by sending Aviva away to where she encounters new adventures and bizarre characters, only to have her return, a figurative palindrome of sorts.
Unfortunately, Solondz goes way out there with Aviva’s story, and through a series of nearly implausible circumstances, she ends up in a foster home full of disabled children run by Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a devout Christian woman.
Aviva spends an extraordinarily long time in this foster home, and when one of the foster kids, Peter Paul, shows her the dumping ground for dead babies, the film starts pandering. A later scene of a baby doll in a Dumpster makes the same point, with an equally heavy hand. Solondz is on much firmer satiric ground when a blind, albino girl at the dinner table tells about nearly being aborted. Only when the storyline spirals back, and erupts in an act of violence, does “Palindromes” again become riveting.
Within an excellent cast, Ellen Barkin is truly mesmerizing, playing Joyce with incredible conviction, particularly during her conversations, early on in the film, with her daughter.
“Palindromes” may not be Solondz’s best work, but it is an important film, proving that there is not a more audacious director working today.