In what is just about the only funny line in Todd Solondz new film, Palindromes, one of the Christian characters laments, "How many times can I be born again?" As in his previous films — Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, and Storytelling — Solondz strives to establish himself as the most sophisticated dramatist of suburban, familial alienation. Viewers might wish Solondz were capable of formulating a version of his born-again character's query: "How many times can I replay the same tired drivel about alienation in the suburban family?"
With its focus on pro-abortion and pro-life families and its mildly clever motif of the palindrome, wherein the world is "all looking-glass," Palindromes seems to have something new to say. Solondz's film at least has the merit of giving equal time and treatment to both sides in the abortion debate, but the occasional glimmer of an insight is overwhelmed by Solondz's addiction to cartoonish exaggeration.
Pro-choice narcissists, pro-life assassins, and an accused child molester as prophet — that's the lineup in this story that follows the adventures of Aviva (a girl played by a number of different actresses, both white and black, and by one actor) whose single desire from her youth is to have lots of babies so that she will always have someone to love.
Initially a young black girl, then an awkward teen, Aviva manages to become pregnant during a sexual encounter with a boy named Judah. Her mom learns the news and insists on an abortion. When Aviva resists, the mom berates her emphatically, "The baby has to go," and then shrieks, "What if it turned out deformed?" Sensing that she may have already given too much ground, the mom backtracks and argues, "It's not really a baby...it's more like a tumor." When these desperate pleas fail, the mother resorts to a confession. A few years after Aviva's birth, she was pregnant again, and very happy at first, until she began to sense the financial burden a second child would cause. So she had an abortion, which she describes as an easy experience that she has never regretted. Besides, it allowed her to give her only child, Aviva, everything, including N'Sync tickets and "that GAP account."
The most chilling scene in the film occurs just after Aviva has the abortion, when the doctor informs the mom that something went wrong; the lens is blurry, the figures distorted, and voices recorded as if in an echo chamber. When the daughter awakens, the mom lies and tells her that all is fine and then resists her daughter's questions about the sex of the baby. When Aviva finds out it was a girl, she gives it the name Henrietta and then adopts that name for herself once she leaves home.
A runaway, Aviva/Henrietta pursues her futile quest to have a child, this time with a truck driver, who quickly gets what he wants and abandons her. Played now as a boy, she has a Huck Finn adventure down a river. She awakens on a riverbank as a black girl again, is discovered by a young boy, and is taken to a Christian home for disabled children run by Mama Sunshine. At dinner, one of the children, an albino girl, tells the story of how her drug-addicted mother did not want her and tried to kill her with a coat hanger. But, through the generosity of Mama Sunshine, Jesus saved her from perdition. Having barely escaped abortion themselves, these kids pray, in quite explicit terms, for aborted, vivisected babies. Their version of the Pledge of Allegiance ends with "liberty and justice for all, born and unborn." The group of disabled misfits is happy because each is part of a loving family; given to exaggeration, Solondz makes them all too happy, as if they were a microcosm of Prozac nation. Even here, all is not peace and love; behind the scenes, the adults at the foster home plot to kill abortionists.
The main character's name, Aviva, is itself a palindrome, as is the structure of the film, which begins and ends with Aviva as a little black girl proclaiming her enthusiasm for having lots of little babies. Tucked just inside those bookends, there are sexual encounters between Aviva and Judah. No matter what her incarnation — age, race, or sex — Aviva is treated the same way by others, has the same dispositions, and has the same goals. This is another way of making the palindromic point, as is the mirror imaging of pro-life and pro-abortion groups. The film seems to equate the murder of abortionists and the slaughter of the unborn, although no one pauses to note that one group is legally protected while the other is not.
Solondz says the film is a love story, but the sexual encounters, beyond being grotesque and offensive, are void of love and passion. Although there are occasional gestures of affection, the men use Aviva to scratch an itch, while her focus is on the end product, pregnancy. Aside from his inability to depict real passion, Solondz seems to think love is whatever someone desires, no matter how perverse, and that desire, no matter what its object, is worthy of our sustained attention.
It's no real reason to subject yourself to his films, but they do show us exactly where such a philosophy leads us.
Solondz most critically acclaimed film, Happiness, offered a sympathetic inside-portrait of a child molester, of his demons and longings, and his frank confessional conversations with his young son. In Palindromes, an accused pedophile delivers the film's philosophy of determinism: "No one changes...there is no free will." It is hard to say which is more stomach-churning, the possibility that the prophet of the film is a pedophile or the reason that Aviva gives for believing that he's not. "You couldn't be a pedophile; they love children."