After a morning spent dodging anti-abortion protestors on out own campus, I found it appropriate to, some hours later, snuggle up on my couch with “Palindromes,” the newest Todd Solondz film, which was poised to pounce on these very activists. “Palindromes” picks up where Solondz’s most well known feature “Welcome to the Dollhouse” left off, complete with the opening scene depicting Dawn Wiener’s funeral. Wiener, the “Dollhouse anti-hero, apparently committed suicide after being gang raped, growing obese, not being loved enough by her family and generally failing to fit in. Cut to Aviva, Wiener’s 13-year-old cousin, crying because she is scared that she will end up like the ill-fated Dawn.
The film follows Aviva as she gets knocked up by a family friend and argues with her mother (played by Ellen Barkin) who wants her to get an abortion in order to preserve her life as it is. Eventually Aviva gives in, but a botched abortion requires her to have a hysterectomy. Upset and rebellious, Aviva runs away from home, leaving us to watch as she falls into one uncomfortable situation after another.
After bedding an ex-con truck driver in his late-30s named Bob (Stephen Adly-Guirgis) and being left alone at an abandoned motel diner, Aviva wanders into the life of Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a middle-aged Born Again Christian who “collects” mentally disabled, handicapped and otherwise discarded children. Aviva quickly fits in and joins the family’s N’SYNC-inspired singing group and grows to love the warmth and lifestyle of the family. That is, until she overhears Mr. Bo Sunshine (Walter Bobbie) discuss with the family doctor that Aviva is a child whore. Embarrassed and afraid, Aviva runs back into the arms of Bob, who had recently been employed by the Sunshines to assassinate an abortion doctor, coincidentally the one who preformed Aviva’s abortion.
The complex story sounds awfully dark, and for the most part it is. But signature Solondz style means that the darkness is not without both humor and deeper meaning. I found myself chuckling at very inappropriate times, most notably a sex scene between Bob and Aviva, but looking further into the reasons that it was funny and why it mattered at all.
Creatively, Solondz chose eight different actors to play the part of Aviva. Five adolescent girls, one adolescent boy and two grown women including an obese black woman alternated in the role of the main character. This strategic move created a universality and humanity around Aviva, implying that she is everyone regardless of race, gender, size and background.
“Palindromes,” though surely not for everyone, opened a new dialogue on the ever-waning concept of abortion, the role of Born Again Christians in society and the painful period of adolescence that no one escapes from unscathed.