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Palindromes Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

In Palindromes, Todd Solandz bends his fascination of the dark human spirit to its snapping point. That being said, this is also same director who turned the subject of pedophilia into a flinching tragic comedy in Happiness and had us erring in favor of parricide in Welcome to the Dollhouse. How then, you ask, does such a nimble button pusher go wrong with this kitschy meditation on a world without racial/sexual/personal identities?

It's really simple. He takes what's already high-concept to the next level and makes the film so painfully oblique that you would be remiss to say that you actually enjoyed the film. Which is a real departure from other Solandz films because no matter how jarring or challenging the subject matter, he always found a way to wash it down with a cupful of wit and a dash of giggle inducing satire. The awkward mass that is Palindromes, however, leaves a sour after taste. While exiting the theater, my poor movie-going friend whispered, "I have so many questions!" with furrowed brow. Let this be a cautionary tale to all, she may not be the only one to be utterly confused.

The plot (once reconstruct piecemeal style) is also really simple. It begins with twelve-year-old Aviva and her relentless pursuit to become a mother. Eventually, she becomes pregnant, but with her mother's coaxing (Ellen Barkin) Aviva's sinful fetus is left in the hands of an abortionist (who also performed the same procedure for her mother). The trauma forces Aviva to run away into the woods where she meets a succession of characters like a born-again pedophile and Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk) and her bible thumping family of physically disabled children.

But it's not nearly as simple as that.

Although the film borrows heavily from fairy tales, it also bears some disquieting weight. Namely underage sex, abortion, fundamentalist religion and patriotism ("Pass the freedom fries!" squeal the Sunshine kids). Along the way, narrative borders are crossed and re-crossed simultaneously in the past, present and future. Identities are also interchanged like a pair of flip flops on the beach. The character Aviva takes many forms: a cute Black child with a lisp; a slim, flame hair ethereal beauty with freckles; a corpulent adult Black woman who nearly bursts out of her teenage clothing and even Jennifer Jason Leigh! The heck you say!

Each character change is a little wink to the audience in an effort to push home the message that harmony isn't all that it's cracked up to be and a cheeky nod to the film title. Interchange Aviva with any innocent red-hair girl, overweight Black woman or even your daughter and it's still the same fairy tale nightmare, but how different would your reaction be? The filmmaker is threatening you to imagine.

As always Solandz picks at middle class scabs and exposes some fleshy wounds. For instance, why do we recoil more over an innocent kiss between big and Black Aviva and teenage Peter Paul (Alexander Brickel) than an actual sex scene between White teenage Aviva and White middle-age Joe/Earl/Bob (Stephen Adly-Guirgis)? Aviva in all incarnations is frighteningly precocious drawn out further by the haunting song about "love, love love."

With all his films, we always feel kind of dirty and guilty for laughing at the lame, the socially marginalized or the just unattractive and those feelings bubble to the surface again with this film in scene with the Sunshine children singing and dancing to God's music despite their physical disabilities or the vignette where Barkin lovely praises a lisping young Black actress that she's a beautiful daughter. It's that feeling of unease that makes Solandz so deliciously good.

But the film suffers from the cuteness of its own dramatic irony. It gets so entangled in its "message" that it's really not clear what purpose the movie served. Is this a Solandz vanity project done just to raise his theoretical bar? Because for moviegoers and even Solandz's avid fans, the plot may be too elliptical to really get a handle on. There's one thing for sure, there will be no fence-sitting here. You'll either love it for its daring or be utterly baffled.

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