May 13, 2005


Directed by Todd Solondz Starring Ellen Barkin and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

A rare auteur in today's American cinema, Todd Solondz has elevated suburban satires to sociological epics. While David Lynch and John Waters plot perversions into their backyard freak shows, Solondz develops everyday personal failing, shame, hypocrisy and betrayal into side-splitting horror. And unlike the conceited Garden State and American Beauty, his films don't pander to average middle-class sensibilities with identifiable characters or moralist corollaries. With Palindromes, he takes on divisive subjects such as abortion, religion and underage sex to once again shake viewers out of their complacency.

The film is a sequel of sorts to Welcome to the Dollhouse, opening with the funeral of Dawn Wiener from that 1995 indie hit. Resolved not to follow in Dawn's suicidal footsteps, 13-year-old Aviva is intent on becoming pregnant. "I want to have lots and lots of babies. That way I always have someone to love." Eight performers of different ages, sizes, skin colours and even genders portray Aviva - Hebrew for springtime. As the title suggests, she isn't the only character with such a palindromic name and radical metamorphosis. The film's neatly symmetrical story arc is itself analogous to a palindrome.

Aviva's teen pregnancy and abortion put her directly at odds with the values of both conservative and liberal Middle America. Hitchhiking from a New Jersey Jewish family to a Kansas Christian safe house, nowhere can she find acceptance or refuge. Her passive-aggressive mother (Ellen Barkin) turns from "You know I'll always accept you no matter what" to "You have the baby, you find another home" in a matter of minutes. The "house of love and faith" Aviva stumbles upon also contorts its "Every child has a right to be born" slogan to propose that every abortionist should be shot. The film pushes even more hot buttons as Aviva willfully falls prey to a sex offender (Stephen Adly Guirgis) on her quest for motherhood.

Solondz's brilliance is most evident in his deadpan scenarios and dialogue that reveal deeply ironic ramifications only on second thought. He downplays the taboo with leisurely daytime-television ambiance to better scrutinize the burden of conformity and acceptance. With nods to The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver's Travels, The Night of the Hunter, Jackass, talent shows, boy bands and MTV, Palindromes leaves nothing unscathed and assures that there's no place like home indeed.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.