Each year, a handful of movies are hailed as ”daring” and ”edgy” and ”subversive” and a great many other things that turn out, almost invariably, not to be true. Then there’s Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, which is that rare event: a memorable provocation. Solondz, the naughty-boy poet-joker of desire and despair who made Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, and Storytelling, is peerless at inventing new and visionary ways to get under your skin. Palindromes, at its simplest, tells the story of Aviva, a morose 13-year-old Jewish girl from New Jersey who gets herself pregnant, is forced by her mother to have an abortion, and ends up running away to a heartland America of wonders and terrors even more disquieting than the suburban enclave she left behind. Describing what happens in Palindromes, however, doesn’t begin to capture what it’s like to watch — the disturbed and heightened curiosity, the feeling of a social odyssey that unfolds with the suspense of a demented screwball dream. Think Welcome to the Dollhouse meets The Night of the Hunter meets Huck Finn in Wonderland. Solondz, who seems to have entered his avant-garde outlaw phase, has made a movie that demands to be seen because it’s like nothing you’ve seen before.
Aviva, the glum, passive, slackly depressed heroine, is played, in succession, by eight different performers: four teenage girls, an androgynous boy, a 6-year-old girl, a hugely overweight African-American woman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. If that sounds like a stunt, it is, but it’s one that achieves a surprisingly direct emotional eloquence. Aviva, who is miserable about everything except her desire to have a baby, keeps her eyes down and speaks in a sodden hushed monotone just this side of disaffected. Her mutating look has the paradoxical effect of forcing us to focus on her innermost qualities, her identity, which gets handed from actor to actor, almost as if it were a ghost passing through different bodies. We’re wired into Aviva’s spirit, yet we’re kept deeply aware of how fragile it is. The snuffing of identity, it turns out, is the theme of the movie.
Early on, Aviva offers herself, without pleasure, to the horny young son of her parents’ friends. She wants to get pregnant, and does. For her mother, played with a queasy mixture of devotion and insensitivity by Ellen Barkin, the course is clear: Aviva must get an abortion. Many in the audience may think that’s the wise choice as well, but this overly rote parental decision has a ghastly outcome, creating a potent unease.
Is Solondz making a pro-life statement? Yes, but not the one that you think. On the road, Aviva connects with Earl (Stephen Adly Guirgis), a trucker with a guilty taste for young girls, and she lands at the homestead of Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), the relentlessly upbeat Christian matriarch of a family of wayward adoptees. A devout antiabortionist, with a husband whose feelings on the subject are even more extreme, Mama Sunshine regards herself as a holy savior of children. Many of her kids have disabilities (there’s a girl with no legs), and when we see them perform the catchy-creepy teen-pop number ”This Is the Way (That Jesus Made Us),” the layers of irony are head-spinning. Solondz flirts with creating a youth version of Freaks, except that he treats these kids without a trace of mockery, letting any exploitation reside in the eye of the beholder. Mama Sunshine clearly loves the children, yet she comes off as a subtly domineering cult leader who has made them over with a wholesome conformity that renders them mere reflections of her ”goodness.” It’s no wonder that Aviva, played in this sequence by the marvelous Sharon Wilkins, feels saved and lost at the same time.
In Solondz’s surreal image of the red state/blue state mash-up, Aviva’s mother embraces the right to abortion, yet she fails to grasp its spiritual toll. Mama Sunshine prizes ”life” but not the idiosyncrasies of the lives she rescues. So who’s really pro-life? In Palindromes, no one is — at least, not fully. That leaves a girl like Aviva floating in the winds, swatted around by an America that’s caught between dueling visions of cut-rate humanity. (On the film’s terms, she’s a palindrome, the same forward and backward — which is to say, her identity isn’t developed enough to change.)
I do wish that Solondz hadn’t piled the theme of pedophilia onto his thicket of who-will- redeem-the-children mythology. Earl the trucker, a killer as well as a sexual predator, digs himself deeper into hell even as he tries to cleanse himself of sin (in a mournfully funny moment, he wails, ”How many times can I be born again?!”). He works up a gritty sympathy, but when Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber), from Welcome to the Dollhouse, shows up at a party to defend himself against charges of child molestation, we wonder what the scene is doing there. Palindromes isn’t flawless, yet it’s an experience to love, to hate, to fight with and to meld your mind with.