Todd Solondz returns to the emotional minefield of pre-adolescence. Gouging out the morally ambiguous behavior beneath the suburban family facade, the film paradoxically loses momentum when its teen runaway hits the road. Given the unblinking treatment of underage sex, distribs are likely to tread carefully.
Todd Solondz returns to the emotional minefield of pre-adolescence in “Palindromes.” At its best in the pungent opening stretch while gouging out the morally ambiguous behavior beneath the suburban family facade, the film paradoxically loses momentum when its teen runaway hits the road. But like the symmetrical word that supplies its title, the mordant comedy-drama recovers ground to become a boldly intriguing if not entirely satisfying subversion of American family values. Given the unblinking treatment of underage sex, distribs are likely to tread carefully, indicating a claim on the same specialty margins as Solondz’s last feature, “Storytelling.”
Scaled back from its original template as a trilogy of stories into a two-parter, that 2001 release felt compromised and incomplete. More rounded yet still somewhat insubstantial, “Palindromes” forgoes the accusatory bitterness to return to the droll pessimism tinged with tenderness of “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” With four films under his belt — not counting his little-seen first feature — Solondz stands alone in his ability to mix caricature with serious intent in chronicling the desperation of solitude and the awkward search for love.
His most ambitious film both thematically and structurally, “Happiness” now appears like a momentary tangent rather than a determined career-growth step onto a broader canvas. Almost in defiance of critics, the bleak bard of New Jersey seems to defend his outsider status by making intimate provocations small enough in scale to inhabit the industry fringes even of the indie sector.
The most widely discussed device here will be the choice to have 12-year-old protagonist Aviva played by eight different actors — two adults, four teenage girls, one pre-teen boy and a 6-year-old girl. The intention is not 100% clear either while watching the movie or after reading Solondz’s statement about experimenting with an audience’s ability to sympathize by casting different types as the same character. But the result is undeniably interesting and adds dimension to a story with a narrow gaze.
Using the funeral of “Dollhouse” misfit Dawn Wiener as a cruelly hilarious jumping off point, story shifts to sweet child Aviva (Emani Sledge) looking to her mother Joyce (Ellen Barkin) for reassurance that she won’t end up like her suicidal cousin. Some years later, Aviva (Valerie Shusterov) expresses her desire to have a baby to Judah (Robert Agri), the lumpen, wannabe filmmaker son of family friends, who promptly rolls on top of her for perfunctory sex. Soon after, her horrified mother and father (Richard Masur) learn that Aviva (Hannah Freiman) is pregnant.
The battle between the single-minded girl determined to keep her baby, and her parents, set on quietly eliminating the problem, represents the movie’s high point and the terrain on which Solondz’s darts have their most morbid accuracy. Befuddled and well-meaning yet grimly unyielding, Barkin is terrific in the scenes in which she talks Aviva around to her way of thinking.
Inadvertently aided by cousin Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber, repeating his role from “Dollhouse”), Aviva (Rachel Corr) runs away following the abortion. Unaware of a hitch in the procedure that, as the story progresses, becomes its most savage irony, she assumes the name Henrietta that would have been her baby’s.
She hooks up briefly with truck driver Joe (Stephen Adly Guirgis) for more dismal sex before landing — this time transformed into a large black woman (Sharon Wilkins) — in the home of Christian crusader Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk).
This protracted interlude all but halts the action and, while there’s some ghastly amusement provided by Mama’s funky Gospel-singing band of born-again disabled kids, the extreme religious right seems like too easy a mark for Solondz. It does serve, however, to illustrate the director’s point that families can kill in a variety of ways.
Final section recounting the runaway’s return home is invigorated by a brief, bruised turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh, putting her own penetrating stamp on Aviva.
Completing the circle that connects back to “Dollhouse,” Aviva insists on inviting Mark to her homecoming barbecue despite his being stigmatized by the family after unproven charges of child molesting filed by sister Missy. Mark’s view of life as an inflexible mathematical equation neatly summarizes Solondz’s palindromic take on unbreakable patterns and people’s resistance to change.
Not by any means a movie about teen pregnancy, abortion or sex with minors even though those issues arise, “Palindromes” instead uses a sad, wafer-thin tale of early adolescent longing to look at the dysfunction in American society. As such, the film will divide audiences between those who embrace or dismiss Solondz’s barbed view and his method of presentation.
The cast’s standout element, Barkin embodies countless levels of hypocrisy while maintaining the appearance of a good-natured woman, and the film slumps when she disappears for a long spell. Both singularly and cumulatively, the various Avivas all have touching moments. Most notably, Wilkins’ awkward physicality and unguarded expression lend pathos, while Freiman handles the tough scenes of being strong-armed into an abortion with fragile intensity.
Divided by pastel-colored title cards — pink for girls, blue for boys — bearing characters’ names, the film lacks the visual sharpness of Solondz’s earlier work despite occasional moments of poetic beauty. Former Shudder to Think musician Nathan Larson’s kitschy tinklings and singsong lullaby theme contribute to the dark mix of childhood innocence with harsh experience.