Can we ever tell the truth about ourselves and can we ever tell a story without exploiting or objectifying someone? Todd Solondz shows how hard it is in a film which is really two separate stories with similar themes but no other obvious connections. The themes are exploitation and prejudice on the basis of age, race and sex. It’s about how we tell our own stories to justify or fool ourselves. This makes for uncomfortable and confronting characters and stories, as you’d expect from the director of Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse.
The first part, Fiction, will have the definite ring of truth for anyone who has done a creative writing course or even tried to write a story. It features spot-on performances, especially from Leo Fitzpatrick and Selma Blair as two students and Robert Wisdom as the angry and vengeful black teacher, and is the tightest of the two stories. The second part, Non-Fiction, is looser and longer, perhaps because the story has obvious parallels to Solondz’s own form of storytelling, through the camera. Non-Fiction tells the story of Toby, a loser with a camera and an idea, who persuades a suburban family to be the subject of a documentary film. Strong performances from John Goodman and Julie Hagerty as the parents, Mark Webber as the dumb and naive Scooby, Jonathon Osser as the supremely vile little brother and Paul Giamatti as Toby keep the thing afloat right up to the savage and self-critical ending. It is possible that Solondz is simply using a cheap gambit at the film’s end, and that by accusing the audience of complicity he is absolving himself. Satire is never easy and Solondz takes risks but maybe it’s time for him to lose the earnestness. Worth seeing even if it makes you mad.