Robin Clifford'palin`drowm [n] - a word or phrase that reads the same backward as forward
Poor Aviva, all she wants is to have as many babies as possible so she'll always have someone to love. But Aviva's only a young girl, so when she succeeds in getting pregnant her mom (Ellen Barkin, "Drop Dead Gorgeous") insists she visit Dr. Fleisher (Stephen Singer, "The Prince & Me") at the abortion clinic. Aviva is so traumatized by the experience (and unaware that she's been the subject of an emergency hysterectomy), she runs away from home and ends up with Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk, TV's "NYPD Blues"), a Christian woman whose husband Bo (Walter Bobbie, "Marci X") and family physician, Dr. Dan (Richard Riehle, "Ken Park," "Bandits"), plan assassinations of abortionists in their basement. Just like Aviva's name, the Victors and Sunshines are forward and backward versions of the same thing - they are "Palindromes."
Writer/director Todd Solondz ("Storytelling," "Welcome to the Dollhouse") is back in form with his unique fable about an innocent caught between the extremes of the right to life issue. Unlike Alexander Payne's abortion satire, "Citizen Ruth," Solondz takes a more ambiguous approach that marries the high intentions and human flaws of both sides. While not as perversely enjoyable as his sophomore masterpiece, "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Palindromes" nonetheless serves up experimental, thought-provoking fare with a side of queasy comedy.
Story/chapter synopsis (chapter titles are italicized):
Beginning with the commemoration 'In loving memory of Dawn Wiener,' "Palindromes segues into its first of nine chapters, all played by a different actress (and one actor), except for the last which brings them all back for an encore. In the 'Dawn' episode, Aviva is a six year old black child (Emani Sledge) who asks her mother (Barkin) if she'll end up like her cousin Dawn, a suicide. 'If she hadn't been obese and seen a dermatologist,' mom speculates, maybe her parents would have loved her. In 'Judah,' Joyce proudly presents her chubby thirteen year old (Valerie Shusterov) to the son of family friends. Judah (Robert Agri) takes Aviva to his room which is wallpapered with naked women. They matter-of-factly watch a porn video, then have sex. Aviva is disappointed with the abruptness of the act. 'Henry' is the high drama of Joyce's discovery that her daughter (Hannah Freiman, a redhead with braces) is pregnant and wants to keep her baby. 'It's not a baby, it's like a tumor,' mom says, before regaling Aviva with the tale of her unborn brother, Henry, whose abortion gave them financial freedom. 'I never felt so relieved as after I took care of little Henry' Barkin says as she prepares to march her girl past right-to-life protesters. 'Huckleberry' Aviva (Will Denton, "Kinsey") is the runaway who turns into Henrietta (Rachel Corr) and stows away in the back of a truck driven by child molesting ex-con Joe (Stephen Adly-Guirgis). Henrietta tries to get pregnant again, but Joe prefers sodomy. He abandons her at a motel and she gets lost in the woods only to be discovered by a young boy, Peter Paul (the amazingly self-assured Alexander Brickel), as an obese black woman (Sharon Wilkins, "Bad Boys II," "Maid in Manhattan"). Peter Paul brings Aviva, who has been calling herself Henrietta after her unborn child, to Mama Sunshine, who has taken in a group of handicapped, unwanted children, and turned them into a Christian singing group. Henrietta is happy here, but when she overhears Dr. Dan tell Bo that she is a 'child whore' as they plot assassination, she runs to their hit man Earl, who happens to be a 'reborn' Joe, and insists that she help him because she knows Fleisher. The distraught with guilt and self-loathing Earl takes the cover name Bob (another palindrome!) and travels back to the Victors' home town with Aviva (Shayna Levine), but their hit goes horribly wrong. Back home, Aviva (Jennifer Jason Leigh, "In the Cut") plans her 'welcome back' party with mom and asks to invite Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber, "Welcome to the Dollhouse"). Mom tells her that his sister Missy had him arrested as a child molester, but Mark attends the party and tells Aviva that people never change before thanking her for talking to him. The final chapter, 'Aviva,' reunites her with Judah, who says he's matured and now calls himself Otto (John Gemberling). He tries to impregnate her again and we see all the incarnations of Aviva as he does so. Of course what we know that Aviva does not is that she has been made incapable of bearing a child.
Solondz' wily script keeps circling around, rife with double entendres. Barkin's delivers Joyce's line about 'getting rid of Henry' to make her momentarily sound like the hit man who will kill her abortionist. Peter Paul offers Mama Sunshine's 'Jesus's tears,' cookies that are shaped like sperm. The Sunshine kids parallel the unborn fetuses their Mama retrieves from a local dump and buries. When Joe/Earl/Bob inadvertently takes an innocent life in the service of the Christian Right, he wonders 'How many more times can I be reborn again?!' And Dr. Dan, like Dr. Fleisher, is in need of rereading the Hippocratic Oath.
Solondz's direction of his actors is also strong. With one exception, he attains the same high, breathy delivery from his multiple Avivas. The device isn't as distracting as it sounds (except for the resemblance among Shusterov, Corr and Levine) and there are subtle shadings given to each - Shusterov is a bit petulant where Freiman is more hysterical, Wilkins is hopefully passive to Jason Leigh's pessimistic acceptance. Only Levine is allowed to stray, too perky and vengeful for a true Aviva. Barkin gives a high flying performance, fiercely maternal and blackly comic where Monk is all, well, sunshine. With the exception of Brickel, all the male characters are cast in some degree of darkness, Adly-Guirgis tortured by guilt between Richard Masur's kindly aggressive Steve Victor and Walter Bobbie's disturbingly placid Bo Sunshine.
The film has an over bright look and a score comprised of lullabies and fairy tales. Victoria Farrell's ("Boys Don't Cry") costuming is hilarious.
"Palindromes" continues its writer/director's seeming obsession with child abuse which begins to make one wonder about Solondz's personal experience. 'Pedophiles love children' Aviva tells Mark Weiner as justification for his innocence of the charge. Solondz isn't content with merely pushing buttons - his own oddball image hovers over his art.
13-year old Aviva Victor (Emani Sledge) wants desperately to have a baby of her own. She almost succeeds in her quest and gets pregnant only to have it terminated by her mother, Joyce (Ellen Barkin), who knows what’s best for her little girl. But, the abortion is botched and Aviva is, unknown to the girl, made sterile. She runs away from home to fulfill her perceived destiny and meets all kinds of people on her journey in “Palindromes.”
Helmer Todd Solenz has confounded film critics and the average movie-goer alike with his offbeat and controversial films, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Happiness” and “Storytelling.” He furthers his penchant to experiment and lay bare such sacred cows such as social exclusion, human sexuality, pedophilia and abortion in his latest film and adds a significant dimension to “Palindromes,” too.
Palindromes” consists of nine chapters with each titled – Chapter 1: Dawn; Chapter 2: Judah; Chapter 3: Henrietta; and, so on – and each with a different actress (and one actor) playing Aviva. This technique is a bit disconcerting, at first, but there is a method to Solenz’s apparent madness. Instead of the viewer building an increasing rapport with the character, Aviva, we meet each one, and her story, anew with every changing chapter. As such, the writer/director’s oft-used themes, such as pedophilia, are less stringently laid bare than in his past films. With each chapter comes a different story, and character, to weave Aviva’s tale.
Solenz uses his unique device (at least, one that hasn’t been done often) to carry forth his rather emotionless story that touches on many emotional subjects. With seven actresses and one actor playing the various Avivas, there is little time to invest in each one. Some chapters work better than others with the “Mama Sunshine” Aviva, played by the obviously adult, black and quite large Sharon Wilkins, coming across as the most complex and interesting of the film’s many parts.
Todd Solenz continues to march to his own tune and it may be a discordant one to many. But, there is the heart and soul of a filmmaker here and his work reflects his passion. “Palindromes” will repel as many as it attracts but, when all is said, it sure is an interesting concept. I give it a B-.
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