Todd Solondz is a man of many contradictions. Perhaps the pushme-pullyou nature of Palindromes, then, makes it the ultimate Solondz expression of his need to take his comedy black and his refusal to take his drama seriously, all at the same time. Narrative challenges are laudable for risking failure, but a failure is still a failure, and Palindromes, for all its experimental verve—played out in a deliberate affectless style that becomes its own strange affect—cancels itself out.
Solondz's films nakedly set out to be notorious, and the provocations of Palindromes are ideological (the theme is underage pregnancies and abortions) and stylistic (eight performers—many with little to no acting experience—share the leading role) in a story that unfolds in a series of vignettes. Thirteen-year-old Aviva has no desire for men or marriage, but simply cannot wait to have a baby. When she allows an ambivalent peer to impregnate her, Aviva incurs the wrath of her mother (Ellen Barkin), who likens the fetus to a tumor.
Aviva's mother soon focuses on the foregone conclusion of Aviva aborting the child. No stranger to teen abortion herself, Barkin's mother is a mess of emotions, but clearly relishes the opportunity to "support" her daughter through the process, one Aviva clearly resists. Before long, Aviva hits the road, subjecting herself to more bad sex (this time with a long-haul trucker) and finding herself—in the film's longest segment—under the wing of a peppy Christian named Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk).
This time, Aviva is played by Sharon Wilkins, a morbidly obese black woman. Solondz fully exploits the contrast between the nervous Wilkins and Monk's peppy brood of kids, including a bespectacled lad who, in chipper tones, gives Aviva a tour of a large mound of medical waste that includes fetuses in baggies. Moments like this one, and the spectacle of the oddball assemblage of orphan kids wearing headset mikes and singing Christian pop tunes like "Every Child Has a Right to Be Born," seem to belong to a different movie than the dour scenes featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh as what's left of Aviva by film's end.
Other Avivas include a young black girl, a couple of waifish white girls, and a feminine boy. Though Solondz basically demands audience sympathy for Aviva, he depicts her as a sort of natural-born victim, one as inconsistent and expressive as an ink blot. Most of the Avivas keep reverting to passive misery, though the one that carries on an affair with the middle-aged trucker (Stephen Adly Guirgis) seems more like a scheming Lolita. A picaresque journey benefits from a character who is, if not keenly perceptive, at least clearly reactive: Aviva seems to be in a constant daze until the film's final moments, when she finally wises up enough to agree with Solondz that her life is destined to suck.
Everyone but Aviva is either marginal or a shrill caricature representing an extremity of a given social or political viewpoint. Solondz turns each character to "11," then points and stifles guffaws at the characters' sufferings. When a statutory rapist and murderer of abortion doctors yells, "I wanna die! I wanna die! How many times can I be born again?!" it's unavoidably funny, but clashes with the queasy drama of miserable sex, broken families, and traumatizing medical procedures.
As for the abortion issue, Solondz refuses to deal with it in any terms other than hysteria. Barkin plays her character with a vivid black-comic pathos missing in the amateur performances, but her pathology is obviously off the grid; so too the conspiracy of Christian murderers who plot hits on abortion doctors. Make this movie a more clever and disciplined satire, and you have Citizen Ruth; make it a drama and you might have something on the order of Vera Drake, but Solondz stirs both into an unsavory gruel that's childishly provocative.
There's no question that Palindromes is something highly personal to Solondz, who teases the point by making the boy who plants his seed in Aviva an aspiring filmmaker ("People are unreliable. They have no faith," he laments) and by bringing back Solondz lookalike Matthew Faber as accused pedophile Mark Weiner. Weiner is the brother of Welcome to the Dollhouse protagonist Dawn Weiner (Heather Mattarazzo declined an invitation to return), and he pops up to express Solondz's essential nihilism about human nature: "People always end up the way they started out." Hope, says Solondz, is for suckers. So for whom should movies be?