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The Girl Can’t Help It: “Palindromes”

The Girl Can't Help It: "Palindromes"

The Girl Can’t Help It: “Palindromes”

by Nick Pinkerton with responses by Matthew Plouffe and Michael Joshua Rowin

Shayna Levine and Stephen Adly Guirgis in a scene from Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes.” Photo credit: Macall Polay courtesy of Wellspring.

[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]

The indie special-defects film of labored shocks that enjoyed a fart of relevance in the Nineties is certifiably in hangover mode. Burn-out Harmony Korine recently emerged in the hip rag Tokion, very much looking the part of a flabby has-been sucking on the resin of his quasi-fame. And Todd Solondz, who launched a thousand ill-conceived reviews by vogue-riding hacks, now desperately masks his dearth of ideas behind convoluted formal experiments. Hence the ungainly structure of “Storytelling,” a cringing defensive shriek toward a much-deserved but nonexistent critical backlash, and now the baffling stunt that’s maladroitly inserted into “Palindromes.” Eight actors of varying age, body type, sex, and race, all take turns playing the lead role of Aviva Victor, a vacuous, innocent 13-year old from suburban Jersey who wants nothing more than a baby, because, of course, “They’re cute.”

The changes in casting, announced by inter-titles, are arbitrary, as Solondz’s latest moves from one icky, hot-button moment to the next; after Aviva gets pregnant by a corpulent cousin, her mother (Ellen Barkin) emotionally strong-arms the girl into having an abortion. Mom has to ferry her through a gauntlet of pro-life protestors (“crazy people,” she says), but the procedure goes through, and Aviva becomes barren in the process. Sullen, she runs away, then is picked up, screwed, and dumped by an anxious-looking trucker (playwright Steven Adly-Guirgis). In a segment titled “Huckleberry” — hopefully not a deluded claim of satirical lineage to Twain — our bedraggled protagonist goes down-river on a lyrical drift that recalls “Night of the Hunter.”

But instead of protective Lillian Gish, Aviva finds herself under the matriarchal auspices of Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a nurturing born-again type introduced while taking a sheet of fresh-baked “Jesus tears” from the oven, and her family, a collection of physically and mentally handicapped orphans. There’s a moment of sitcom-snappy repose here, but before you know it Adly-Guirgis resurfaces, taking instructions from Sunshine patriarch Bo to target and eliminate the same “baby killer” who’d operated on Aviva. She sneaks off with her pederast lover, goes along on a botched hit which ends in the accidental death of one of the doctor’s young daughters and… Well, you get the idea.

When “Palindromes'” heroine(s) moves from the domesticated cruelty of suburban Jews to the pop-eyed fervency of the Moral Majority Middle America set, we’re exposed to two caricatured, clichéd worlds — red state, blue state — each represented as their worst detractors might imagine them. Aviva’s trip to the abortion clinic is straight from the pages of a Jack Chick Christian scare tract, whereas giving Adly-Guirgis’s right-to-life assassin a statutory sweet tooth is typical smug liberal send-up of righteous conservative hypocrisy à la “American Beauty” (think Chris CooperKevin Spacey gay scene). Congratulations Todd, you hit the broadside of two barns! Playing with stereotypes like this can be a devastatingly potent form of comic shorthand, but it’s a touchy high-wire act, and Solondz doesn’t have the focus to get anything out of it but cheap shots.

“Palindromes” includes only one moment that genuinely surprises. At her birthday party upon returning home, Aviva talks to her cousin Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber, reprising his role from “Welcome to the Dollhouse”), who’s been ostracized by the rest of the family by an accusation of pedophilia — in Solondz’s tabloid universe every family is nursing a front-page tragedy. Faber is a concentrated flame of compact, pencil-necked nihilism as he spells out the movie’s tacked-on thesis: “People always end up the way they started out,” just like, that’s right, palindromes. It’s a scene that makes you pay attention, if only for the hard, resigned conviction of Faber’s delivery, and it speaks to our shared sense of worst-case scenario, confirming every dire suspicion that you’ve ever had. I like Mark Wiener, the way I tend to like people who challenge my ability to keep living, and the time he’s onscreen is more disturbing than the rest of Solondz’s cartoon atrocity exhibition.

The profound bankruptcy of this movie’s thinking can be found in Solondz’s musings in the “Palindromes” press kit, where he refers to Aviva’s journey as a transit between “one family that kills one way and another that kills another way.” The implication of such a statement is clear; “Palindromes” won’t draw any moral demarcation between the abortion that the Victors push upon their daughter and the shooting in which the Sunshine family are implicated. Solondz has more than once been called daring, and maybe he is — he deserves credit if only for spending time with people other moviemakers won’t spend time with and making us look at people other moviemakers won’t point a camera at.

But this calculated flirtation with right-to-life rhetoric is about as ballsy as any post-everything kid’s ironic racism, and significantly less funny. I just can’t find anything brave in “Palindromes'” refusal to make moral distinctions, but that’s because I’ve always had a little trouble with aesthetic discrimination. So Solondz’s method of artlessly, insistently prodding an audience’s uncomfortable spots reminds me more than anything of the cafeteria shooting footage in “Bowling for Columbine,” or the glossy, gory poster boards that abortion clinic protestors — the lowest form of human life — wave around. They’re all the work of idiots who rub dirty pictures in your face to prove some big whatever, as if telling the truth was ever really as simple as finding the nastiest image.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

Alexander Brickel and Sharon Wilkins in a scene from Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes.” Photo credit: Macall Polay, courtesy of Wellspring.

Take 2
By Matthew Plouffe

Any facile consideration is bound to recognize that “Palindromes” wears its formula proudly on its sleeve. One of the difficulties in examining Solondz’s film may be that the director himself saturates “Palindromes” with so much of his signature camp and snickering irony that it almost undermines an impressively subtle patchwork woven under the guise of dead-end investigations of political and moral… dead-ends. I mean, “Palindromes”? After listening to Mark Wiener’s cloying “no one ever changes” speech in the penultimate tableau, even my own inclination is to join the chorus with a resounding “Got it, Todd.” Unfortunately the film’s occasional indolence – it does at times seem plain and excessive – is liable to dissuade viewers from giving it deserved consideration. But for all its head-hammering moments, “Palindromes” is effectively engaged in an examination of stasis in its essence: as an ineffable, often unseen and self-perpetuated prison. Typically, there are a lot of laughs here, but those with an ear for undertone will hear a peculiar and lingering melancholy amidst the riot.

It seems appropriate to re-state that Solondz has always had his finger on the pulse of perversion, paranoia, and paradox; “Palindromes” has roots in his previous work, and the aforementioned themes play out again here. But never before has the filmmaker so scrutinized the philosophical finger-trap of his oeuvre, or committed himself so thoroughly to his subject matter.

In story structure, scripting, and an easily dismissed but oddly affecting casting gimmick, Solondz lays a very physical and clear-cut foundation. But it’s the delicately traversed, morally-subject terrain of identity and its link to love and acceptance that opens the can of worms worthy of everyone’s attention. From the Sunshine Singers, a group of disabled, once-abandoned youths singing the praises of pro-life with Backstreet Boys gusto, to simple declarations from his protagonist Aviva, who wants to love and be loved (and/or get pregnant), the film is fueled by a potent concoction of standard Solondz self-reflexivity, genuine gazing into the mirror, and (most excitingly) an objective and acute consideration of love, self-worth, and the dark confines of persona.

[Matthew Plouffe is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

Take 3
by Michael Joshua Rowin

Ellen Barkin and Jennifer Jason Leigh in a scene from Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes.” Photo credit: Macall Polay, courtesy of Wellspring.

I don’t mean to be a stickler for formalism, but couldn’t a film titled “Palindromes” — one containing a painfully underdeveloped determinist theme and a half-hearted stab at narrative bookends — have had its proverbial screws tightened by being structured like a palindrome, bearing the same elements both backwards and forwards? Maybe it’s my own personal love for word games in general and palindromes in particular (it’s certainly not because I see in writer-director Todd Solondz any resemblance to Hollis Frampton), but the most offensive aspect of the dying-to-offend “Palindromes” is its artistic sloppiness, its disastrous failure to follow through on any political, social, philosophical, and aesthetic promises.

The unrealized palindromic possibilities are just the most obvious example. Solondz’s defenders will immediately retort that their man isn’t promising anything, is indeed bravely challenging audience expectations. Wrong. Solondz is serving up the same smug pile of pseudo-subversion, only this time it’s under the guise of “experimental.”

So, why palindromes (and “Palindromes”) in the first place? Since palindromes read the same from front to back and back to front, Solondz connects them metaphorically to the unchanging personalities of his characters and thus, humankind. But this daringly shallow worldview merely serves as an apologia for the film’s pernicious buttressing of patriarchal ideology.

Mark Wiener’s speech on the impossibility of free will frames Aviva’s quixotic longing for motherhood not simply as a dark practical joke but as a fable demonstrating femininity’s essential nature. Aviva (mirror of that first palindromic woman, Eve?) wants babies only so that “somebody will always love me.” “You’ll always be you” is her mother’s coddling response. By the end of her journey, Aviva has neither grown nor matured, staked out neither independence nor identity. According to Solondz, a woman is a woman is a woman is a woman, until her existence can be reduced to that exemplary defanged palindrome, “Mom.”

[ Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot, has written for the Independent, Film Comment, and runs the blog, Hopeless Abandon. ]

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