Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Palindromes (2004) is the latest film by Todd Solondz, who you may remember as the writer-director of such up-lifting, feel-good films as Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse.

Palindromes tells the story of Aviva, a teenage girl who gets pregnant, gets an abortion and then runs away from home, ultimately taking up with a born-again musical-number singing Christian family full of deformed adopted children called--what else?--the Sunshines.

A "palindrome," is a word or phrase that's the same forwards or backwards, like Anna, sex of foxes, or, the main character's name Aviva. It doesn't change, even backwards... And that's in some ways what the movie is about. Change... or rather the lack of it... stasis. As one of the characters asks in a bitter monologue... Do we really ever change?

The gimmick--if that's the right word--of Palindromes is that the character of Aviva is played by different actresses throughout the film. We see Aviva change weight, race, hair color, etc. but what, as she accumulates these horrible experiences, about her is really changing?

What is the nature of change when we say "I've changed"? What is the nature of choice? Do we really ever choose anything? Or are we just--as Solondz seems to be suggesting--blindly and stupidly stumbling through experience, filling out a genetically predetermined life, rearranging the surface details at times, but never really changing, never really choosing.

Ellen Barkin does a fantastic job as the mother, who convinces her own daughter to get an abortion "just like mommy did." It's a difficult part, both because of the hot button issues that the plot deals with, but also because Solondz' tone would be--I imagine--a hard one for actors to grasp and convey. We, the audience, vacillate between despising, pitying, sympathizing with, laughing at, and identifying with his characters. I thought Barkin, along with the rest of the cast, nailed it.

And for anyone who thinks that his portrait of the born-again family, their musical numbers, their communal laughter and their maudlin cheerfulness is over-the-top and unrealistic, an exaggerated portrait played up for laughs.... As someone who grew up and lives in the Bible-belt South, I can testify: that is dead-on accurate realism. You could show that portrait to a born-again Christian and they wouldn't balk at seeing themselves portrayed like that: "What a nice family!"

I should mention that Jeff didn't like it and was making fun of me for watching it, but when he got bored, he went into the bedroom to record his reading of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War onto mini-disc, which will give you some idea of what Jeff does for entertainment.

All in all, Palindromes makes for a viewing experience that's great, funny, sad, weird, and ultimately unsettling (and I mean that in the best possible way).

FilmStock Rating: A-


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