UK release date: Mar 26 2008

cast list

Ellen Barkin
Richard Masur
Jennifer Jason Leigh

directed by
Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz’s films have a tendency to divide opinion. Each of his films explore some combination of sex, race, paedophilia… and this time, abortion. All of his movies are broadly speaking, comedies, but contain enough jaw-dropping moments to unsettle the most liberal of audiences or to outrage sections of that same arthouse audience that his career surely relies upon. The director, a native of New Jersey, has been called many things, amongst them “anti-Semitic” (Solondz is Jewish, incidentally). Palindromes, his latest effort, will do little to calm the dissenters.

It’s in New Jersey that Palindromes opens, at the funeral of Dawn Weiner (from the director’s earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse), who has taken her own life. Her nerdy but confidently opinionated older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) stands before the funeral gathering. He introduces a taped performance of Dawn singing and playing in a talent contest, where she didn’t get past the first round, but in which he adds, she deserved to go further. It’s typical Solondz, derived in part from John Waters‘ no-holds-barred, so-painfully-funny-it-hurts brand of cinema, but even more pitch black in tone.

We cut to Aviva, a 13-year-old girl, telling her mother (Ellen Barkin) how she dreams of having lots of children so that she’ll always be loved, and seeking some assurance that she won’t end up like Dawn Weiner. Aviva (a palindrome, of course) is our central character – played by six young actresses at different times – of varied race, shape and size, as well as by the 40-something Jennifer Jason Leigh. This device is not as irritating as it sounds though – presumably the director doesn’t want us to have any preconceptions about Aviva, and so in each titled sequence, she changes physically.

Aviva does indeed get herself pregnant at the first time of asking, with a clumsy boy of her own age, but her parents force her, against her wishes, to have an abortion. She runs away, has consenting but underage sex with a lorry driver, and winds up lost in a forest, a long way from home, only to be rescued by a boy named Peter Paul, who offers her a place to rest at the house of Mama Sunshine (Sharon Wilkins). The director has described the film as a “fable”. It’s not your run-of-the-mill fable though. Children with various physical and mental disabilities populate Mama Sunshine’s house, and sing the God-fearing, pro-choice songs of the religious zealots who run the place. In their spare time, the good folk like to put out the odd contract on abortionists.

It isn’t giving too much away to say that the film ends back in New Jersey with the same little girl yearning for babies – the story itself is a palindrome. In the penultimate scene, Mark Weiner reappears, and at the culmination of his conversation with Aviva, tells her “I’m not a paedophile,” a statement that is surely Solondz by proxy. Aviva replies that he can’t be anyway because paedophiles like children.

Palindromes is complex and full of debate. Solondz, as ever, hasn’t taken the easy way out. Even his caricaturing of the pro-choice lobbyists is balanced out by the depiction of Aviva’s heartbreak at giving up the baby that rightly or wrongly, she so wanted, and by a pretty heavy-handed scene where Peter Paul unwittingly takes her to a scrapheap piled with evidence of terminated pregnancies. Despite a handful of non-naturalistic actors (these give the film some comic relief), there is, believe it or not, a great deal of warmth in the film, particularly in the performances of Barkin and the multiple Avivas. Definitely not a first date movie.

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