Todd Solondz’s latest offering sees a return to familiar subjects for the American writer/director, well known for his past films Welcome To The Dollhouse, Happiness, and Storytelling. Palindromes brings us back to middle America – or Solondz’s often uncomfortable portrayal of it.
Solondz wanted to make a sequel to Welcome To The Dollhouse, but his dream was halted when lead actress Heather Matarazzo told him that she would never play the role of Dawn Weiner again. So Solondz made Palindromes as a companion-piece to Dollhouse, opening the film with the funeral of Dawn and creating the character of Aviva as her cousin.
Palindromes follows the story of 13 year old Aviva, who has wanted more than anything, ever since she was very young, to have a baby of her own. After her attempts to do so run up against the obstacle of her parents, Aviva runs away from home and embarks on a physical and emotional journey, with the aims of making her dream come true.
Through this film, Solondz encounters themes of abortion, paedophilia, underage sex/sexuality, disability, and fundamental Christianity. Some of these themes nearly saw Palindromes refused classification in Australia when Solondz attempted to have its R rating revised to an MA.
The nature of the themes will be no surprise to viewers of Solondz’s other works, and therein lies most of the criticism of his latest film. Solondz may indeed be re-treading a now well-worn path with Palindromes. While I would assert that this is because this is ground that Solondz is brilliant at portraying (particularly within an industry and country which is often hesitant to do so), some wonder how much more can be drawn from such oft-revisited subjects. I feel that he has shown with Palindromes that there is still plenty to say about middle America.
While Solondz’s themes may not be entirely original, the director brings one very original and innovative plot device to Palindromes. 13-year-old Aviva is played by eight different actors (one six year old girl, one 12 year old boy, four 13-14 year old girls, and two women, the last of which is Jennifer Jason Leigh), all of varying races and sizes as well as ages. This is a fascinating device, and Solondz by using it explores the question of whether the same, entirely sympathetic, character will find audiences’ sympathies shift if presented in a different physical appearance.
There are some fantastic performances in this film, and all the child actors are very well directed to have similar mannerisms and vocal tones despite their different bodies, which does bring some continuity to the main character. Ellen Barkin (coming out of semi-retirement to work with Solondz) is almost perfect as Aviva’s mother, and all the children in the Sunshine family are great, if somewhat over-played, and highly amusing (in Solondz’s typically uncomfortable way).
There is a fairytale-feel to Aviva’s journey which sits in stark contrast to its black humour and confronting topics, but is nicely supported by the repeated melody of the soundtrack (disconcertingly taken from the Rosemarys Baby soundtrack). The poster for the film reflects this well, being a cartoon image of one of the Avivas entering into the woods Little-Red-Riding-Hood style.
Unable to find the financial backing to make Palindromes from any industry investors, Solondz dipped into his personal savings to get the film made. Which is as good a reason as any to pay to see it.
Be sure to keep your eye out for hidden palindromes along the way!
**** (4 stars)
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