Todd Solondz is back -“ and he’s making weird movies again. Not weird as in Happiness, which shook your suburban foundations and made you gratefully think twice about how you lived. And not weird as in Welcome To The Dollhouse where your central character’s name was an American colloquial term for penis.
This time round, Solondz is being weird in the most provocative but bravest of ways, doing what no self-preserving screenwriter or director would do -“ casting eight different actors of varying age, race and gender to play the main character.
Palindromes is the story of 13-year-old Aviva, a girl who wants more than anything to be a mother and she comes close to succeeding. After her mother intervenes by sending her to the local abortionist, Aviva hits the road.
On her journey as a runaway, Aviva shares a bed -“ and sex -“ with a pedophile truck driver who sneaks away before breakfast. Lost in a forest, she is drawn into the home of Mama Sunshine by a precocious young sickly charmer Peter Paul (Alexander Brickel). Mama Sunshine runs a cheery establishment for kids with disabilities -“ all remarkable performers who harbour the real sympathetic heart of Palindromes -“ under the big umbrella of the love of Jesus. Aviva is thrown from one family who pushed the idea of choice but offered none to one where everyone’s choices have been made and happiness appears plentiful.
How easy it would be to criticise Palindromes as merely a fanciful exercise in directorial manipulation because it is. How convenient to accuse Solondz of being a fence-sitting provocateur because he certainly takes this non-position in Palindromes on the polarising issues of abortion, the right-to-life and pedophilia.
But Todd Solondz also takes apart the convenient packaging of Hollywood narratives and creates a story which is unsettling yet simultaneously compelling. The film begins with a eulogy service to Dawn Weiner, his muse of Welcome To The Dollhouse. Having killed her off, he can move on -“ in leaps and bounds.
Solondz has assembled an incredible mix of actors on a shoestring budget for his fourth feature, among them Jennifer Jason Leigh and African-American actor Sharon Wilkins -“ oft seen on Law and Order SVU -“ who are the two adult women who play the young Aviva. The earnest Ellen Barkin is a constant in the audience’s parallel voyage among the confusing changing parade of Avivas.
I’m not convinced Solondz proves his thesis: that audiences will embrace a sympathetic character even if you change her race, age, gender. I found it unsettling more than anything. For any other director, this would have been a huge risk, but for Todd Solondz it is more fuel to his imaginative fire and perhaps more of a stepping stone to another piece of magic.