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Kidding Around

I finally saw Todd Solondz’ PALINDROMES the other night. I had previously rented it and not gotten around to seieng it, and I remember when it came out, most of the reviews were not good.

I’m not sure what the reviewers were expecting. It’s very much a Solondz film, if you like the sort of thing he generally does. It isn’t as good as HAPPINESS, but I’m not sure he’ll ever do better than that, as none of his films since have had that level of ambition or such a high-caliber level of talent across the board. HAPPINESS made me take note of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Dylan Baker; I can’t say the same is true of any of Solondz’ other films. Heather Matarazzo got a bit of a boost for a while from WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (my least favorite of Solondz’ films, as it’s merely painful rather than painfully amusing), but she really never seemed to have that much of a range.

PALINDROMES is divided up into several chapters, and in each chapter, the actress playing the lead character Aviva is different (though some of the actresses reoccur in later segments). It’s an audacious move, and one without any precedent I’m familiar with (though there’s almost always a precedent for everything if you look hard enough). And it works — it captures the shifting identity of adolescence, where one day you feel like a glamorous adult, others like a scared child, others still like a grotesquely overweight misfit. From the age of 14 till I was about 21, every year I would think to myself, “Man, last year I didn’t know what I was thinking. THIS is the real me.”

Aviva is the cousin of WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE’s Dawn Wiener, whom we find out early on has killed herself. Aviva, who occasionally goes by the pseudonym of Henrietta, makes it her goal not to be like her cousin, and imagines she’ll find happiness as a mother. But when her parents make her get an abortion, she runs away, falling in with a group of kindly pro-life Christians who turn out to have a dark side when it comes to abortion doctors. This isn’t CITIZEN RUTH, though, in which Alexander Payne had some fun sending up both sides of the abortion debate. The issue is very much on Aviva’s mind, but it’s also a real symbol of immaturity in all the characters who deal with it here. The real issue is how we treat our children — the born again family almost seems to collect the unwanted, while Aviva’s ostensibly more “enlightened” parents never take her seriously on the subject, and never deal with it in a respectful manner. And all Aviva wants is a baby as a prop for her own fulfillment, though she needs a responsible parent more. The lullaby on the soundtrack even seems to deliberately call ROSEMARY’S BABY to mind, which of course makes child-rearing seem even more ominous.

I’m not entirely sure what the significance of the title is — various characters have names that are palindromes (Aviva, Otto, Bob), but even though there’s a sense that the movie ends right back where it started, it isn’t a symmetrical journey in any sense that I can make out. It ends with a kicker, that’s for sure; but one that’s earned, rather than the cheap shock value of kicking things off by saying “Oh, you know that girl you cared about in my other movie? She’s DEAD!” (This is why so many people hate ALIEN 3, but that at least was a direct sequel; PALINDROMES would work just as well if a faceless character had died — the story doesn’t follow on from WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE in any other meaningful way).

Anyway, a big step up from STORYTELLING, whose two segments never connected for me (and the second segment needed something more). If you respect Solondz and were put off by the reviews, do check this one out.

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