There and back again

‘Palindromes’ puts a new spin on our most tawdry national obsession

Niels Strandskov

At this point in his career, it should be obvious Todd Solondz’s films are not for everyone. In addition to the critical voices that have made this point, Solondz himself said in an interview with The Minnesota Daily that this is the case.

But it is important to note that people who are up for the challenge of Solondz’s work have a responsibility to see it unflinchingly.

Solondz broke open the silence around the pain of growing up smart and different 10 years ago with “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” the story of New Jersey junior high school student Dawn Weiner, a misfit’s misfit for whom the complex realities of popularity, sexuality and success remain forever mysterious.

“Palindromes,” his latest film, picks up where that story left off, with Dawn meeting the sad end that, perhaps apart from a grueling slog through the gauntlet of high school and college ending in something like an apotheosis, was destined to be her fate.

Lest you think this is just more evidence of Solondz’s essential viciousness, he said he feels just as bad about this as do the legions of Dawn’s fans.

“I’m disappointed; I didn’t want Dawn to die,” Solondz said.

He had begged Heather Matarazzo to reprise the role, but she refused categorically.

“I had to accept this reality, as painful as it might be,” Solondz said.

“Palindromes” picks up the saga of pain and hope in the person of Dawn’s cousin, Aviva, a little girl who is terrified by her relative’s horrific decline.

In contrast to Dawn’s urge to die, Aviva (whose name, besides being a palindrome, means “springtime” in Hebrew) is single-minded in her pursuit of motherhood.

To create life within her, the now-13-year-old girl must use the traditional means personified in the film by a cloddish teen who is the son of family friends.

At this point in the narrative, even the most distracted viewer will have noticed Aviva is being played by more than one character. In all, Solondz cast eight actors to play his protagonist. This isn’t really an homage to surrealist director Luis Bunuel, who used the same device in one of his later films, “That Obscure Object of Desire.” (Solondz said he prefers Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel” and “Los Olvidados” anyway.)

Instead, the multicasting works in concert with one of the film’s other central ideas, namely, that people can’t change and that we are destined to be the same at the end as we were at the beginning.

The synthesis of these two points is Solondz’s claim to a universal appeal for his stories, no matter how unlikely it might seem.

After Aviva becomes pregnant, her loving, somewhat cloying parents insist on abortion. After the operation, she runs away, only to find herself enmeshed in the lives of radical anti-abortion activists who have adopted several children with disabilities. Eventually, Aviva winds up abetting a terrible crime before being returned to her home and family.

In Aviva’s cross-country search for belonging, Solondz sees something that can’t be tarnished by social pressures or even unintended consequences.

“She’s 13 years old, and she wants to be a mom. And what does that mean, but that she imagines that having a baby will provide her with unconditional love. This movie is a quest for that love, a quest for the sublime, ultimately,” Solondz said.

In almost any other director’s hands, this motivation might seem tawdry or cliched. But this is exactly where Solondz’s genius comes through.

“To me, it’s a heartbreaking, tender tale about a young girl on a quest for love. It’s the saddest of all my comedies,” he said.

Indeed, the pathos of Aviva is heightened by her completely believable 13-year-old’s naivete. Unlike other indie directors, Solondz sees irony for what it is, the premonition of doom, rather than an end in itself.

Our culture, in its decadence, has focused its greedy eye on the sexual exploitation of children, in which the hint of titillation meets the promise of swift, wrathful vengeance in a delightful frisson that seems tailor-made for the evening television news.

The very same moralizing hypocrites who are outraged at the idea that children might have a legitimate sexuality (or, as in Aviva’s case, a sexuality that is neither wise nor wicked) are increasingly, predictably, the perpetrators of the worst crimes against the people they claim to “protect.”

With “Palindromes,” Solondz has created a film that utterly confounds the simplistic, binary views on this subject that currently hold sway. Not everyone is willing to stand up against the whims of convention and say something meaningful. And that is precisely why everyone who can should dare consider Solondz’s case for change.