Aviva Victor is twelve years old and all she wants in life is to be a mother. So much so that she becomes pregnant by equally young family friend Judah. Needless to say, her mother Joyce (Ellen Barkin) is having nothing of this, and she talks Aviva into having an abortion. Told that the lost child is a girl, Aviva thinks of her as “Henrietta”, and when she runs away from home she uses that name as an alias. Palindromes is her journey, which takes in a paedophile truck driver turned born-again Christian (played by Steven Adly Guirgis), and a home for “special children” run by Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk) which is not all it seems.
Todd Solondz came to prominence with his second feature film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, which has just received a UK DVD release from Artificial Eye. (Solondz tends to disparage his 1989 debut, Fear, Anxiety & Depression.) Depending on your sensibility and who you believe, Dollhouse is either a hilarious black comedy or a study of a bullying victim that’s almost too painful to watch. I’m in the latter camp. Solondz followed this with Happiness, which is easily his finest film to date. It cemented his reputation as a director unafraid to take on subjects that were taboo (notably Dylan Baker’s non-demonised portrayal of a paedophile) and uncomfortable and make them the stuff of black comedy – a high-wire act that he managed without falling off. However, there were some nay-sayers, who detected in Solondz a tendency shared with other American indies: a tendency to look down on his characters and use them for easy laughs, at their lack of sophistication compared to the upscale audiences who would most likely go to see a Todd Solondz film. There’s some truth in this, and it’s a tendency that went arguably out of control in his next film, Storytelling, a film that fell apart in the cutting room: it’s a two-part feature whose intended third part ended up on the cutting room floor.
Now we have Palindromes, which is a film of considerable interest but is ultimately somewhat inconsequential. It’s a quasi-sequel to Dollhouse, in that it opens at the funeral of that film’s protagonist, Dawn Wiener (Aviva’s cousin), and Matthew Wiener reprises his role as Dawn’s brother Mark. Dawn, we learn, became obese, suffered a date rape at college and committed suicide. Speaking as someone reduced to tears by Dollhouse that seems too much like a gratuitous twist of the knife from Solondz and it’s something that gets the film off on the wrong foot. Solondz ticks off the boxes for his liberal audience: anti-abortion protestors are murderous loonies, and Mama Sunshine’s happy-clappy children’s home is a smiling surface hiding a hypocritical interior. Aviva is a “whore” because she’s not a virgin, and the home harbours a plot to assassinate the abortionist who operated on Aviva. However, we learn, but Aviva doesn’t, that her abortion was botched and she had to have an emergency hysterectomy – and the devastating consequences of that are completely avoided. You could say that this is intended dramatic irony, but I don’t buy it.
You may have noticed that I haven’t identified anyone as playing Aviva. That’s because Solondz casts eight different people in the role, in each of the film’s named sections. These actors are of different ages and sizes: two of them are black, one is a boy, and one of them is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who looks worryingly convincing as a twelve-year-old. The title of the film is reflected in palindromic character names (not just Aviva but also Bob, Otto and so on) and a structure whose second half reverses the first. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the final Aviva on screen, and in the film’s last section her previous on-screen incarnations appear again, in reverse order. This is no doubt intended as an alienation effect, but it also illustrates Mark Wiener’s comment that however much things change, we ultimately stay the same, and end where we began.
I don’t think the work succeeds as a whole: it tends to collapse into a series of short sections, an effect which the multiple Avivas only accentuates. However, there’s no doubting Solondz’s skill with dialogue and individual sections are well put together. It’s certainly nice to see Ellen Barkin in a decent role again, even though she’s off screen for most of the middle section of the film, and most of the Avivas give good performances. But this seems ultimately lightweight, which backs up the impression given by Storytelling that Solondz has – temporarily at least – run out of things to say.
Tartan’s all-regions edition of Palindromes is transferred in a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. I suspect the original aspect ratio is 1.85:1, but opening up the matte makes little difference. The opening funeral sequence was shot on video (there’s a timestamp and the letters REC on screen throughout) and looks intentionally soft. The rest of the film originated in 35mm and is much sharper – though not too sharp as there’s a presumably intended slight softness throughout.
There are three soundtrack options: 5.1 mixes in Dolby Digital and DTS and a 2.0 (analogue Dolby Surround) alternative. Of the two 5.1 versions, there’s little to choose from: the DTS mix has a very slight edge in clarity (the ambient sounds are mixed a little higher on the Dolby Digital track) but there’s really nothing in it, and both will be quite acceptable, as will be the rather lower-volume Dolby Surround track if you don’t have a 5.1 set up. Frankly, much of the film is dialogue-driven, and the surrounds and subwoofer don’t really kick in until the music score makes an entrance ten minutes into the film. There are quite a few uses of directional sound, notably passing traffic in a couple of roadside scenes. There are sixteen chapter stops. Hard-of-hearing subtitles are provided for the feature but not the extras.
As for those extras, they comprise a set of film notes (presumably as a printed insert as they aren’t on the disc itself, and weren’t provided with the review checkdisc) and the theatrical trailer. The latter is a quote-heavy effort that is in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 and runs 1:47. This is a film of “love and compassion”, folks. The extras are completed by Tartan’s usual trailer reel, which this time comprises The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Mysterious Skin, Mean Creek, Silver City and DiG!.
Palindromes will be essential viewing for Solondz’s admirers but unlikely to convert the unconverted. Those like me who are waiting for him to live up to the talent shown in Happiness may find it a little unfulfilling, despite its undoubted pleasures.