USA/France 2004

Film still for Palindromes

Reviewed by Tony Rayns


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Distraught after the funeral of her cousin Dawn Wiener, pre-teen Aviva Victor tells her mother Joyce (Ellen Barkin) that she is set on becoming pregnant. Aviva's story is told across nine chapters.

Dawn : Joyce tries to explain to Aviva (Emani Sledge) why Dawn committed suicide. Judah: Some years later. The Victors visit friends and Aviva (Valerie Shusterov) is clumsily impregnated by the nerdy son of the family, Judah (Robert Agri). Henry: Aviva's parents furiously insist on taking her to the abortionist Dr Fleischer. Joyce reveals that she aborted a son ('Henry') a few years after Aviva was born. The botched operation leaves Aviva (Hannah Freiman) barren; she thinks of her lost child as Henrietta.

Henrietta : Aviva (Rachel Corr) runs away from home, hides in a truck and spends the night in a motel with the trucker, who calls himself 'Joe'; she calls herself Henrietta. In the morning, Joe (Stephen Adly Guirgis) bolts. Huckleberry: Aviva (Will Denton) crosses the countryside on foot and drifts downriver in a boat. Mama Sunshine: Aviva (Sharon Wilkins) is taken in by the Christian couple Mama and Bo Sunshine (Walter Bobbie), who are training a large brood of adopted orphans to perform righteous song-and-dance routines. During a visit by Dr Dan (Richard Riehle) and born-again sex offender Earl (Stephen Adly Guirgis), Aviva overhears plans to mount a terrorist strike against the abortionist Dr Fleischer (Stephen Singer).

Bob : Aviva (Shayna Levine) knows Earl as the trucker 'Joe' and insists that he take her along on the mission to target Dr Fleischer. On arrival, Earl takes two long-range shots at the abortionist, one maybe hitting Fleischer's daughter. Earl and Aviva flee the crime scene and check into a motel; the desk clerk is suspicious. Paralysed with guilt, Earl reveals that his real name is Bob. The motel is surrounded by police and Bob is gunned down. Mark: Back with her parents, Aviva (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has a birthday party and talks to the unpopular Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber) (Dawn's elder brother). Aviva: Aviva goes on a date with Judah (Robert Agri/John Gemberling), who now calls himself Otto. They make love, and Aviva is suddenly confident that she is pregnant again.


Since Todd Solondz found his groove in Welcome to the Dollhouse, it's become obvious that he's essentially a one-trick pony. Luckily it's a pretty good trick: he takes characters and situations from domestic soap-opera, pushes them into the areas where daytime TV fears to tread, and delivers deadpan comedy of excruciating embarrassment - which is often excruciatingly funny. He's particularly good at skewering small moments of personal failure and humiliation, but often gets the bigger, grandstanding stuff right too, and has a Fassbinder-like ear for dialogue with unintended levels of meaning. His greatest hit Happiness provoked some to attack him as a cynical phoney, deliberately courting controversy and sneering at his own characters; he fought back in his last feature, the slightly over-earnest Storytelling, but didn't really need to. The comedy and pathos in his movies wouldn't work at all if the fiction didn't have a core of felt experiences and emotions. His satire is at least as sincere as anything by Chris Morris.

Still, Solondz faces the same problem that other one-trick ponies do: how to freshen up the act and make it seem new? Palindromes reproduces the tone and timbre of previous Solondz movies (it's a sort-of sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse, opening with the funeral of that film's protagonist Dawn Wiener and featuring Dawn's brother Mark, again played by Matthew Faber), but tweaks the formula by playing new games with the storytelling. First, he's finally severed his umbilical link with the New Jersey suburbia that nurtured him; the setting here, to judge by the vehicle number plates, is Kansas, presumably a nod to The Wizard of Oz. Second, he's taken the palindrome as his structural model, not only giving his protagonist Aviva a palindromic name but also dividing his narrative into nine chapters with the story-arc of a boomerang. (There's nothing precise about the structure, but it does respect the Greek root of the word 'palindrome' - it means 'running back again'.) And third, he's shaken up one of the prime tenets of drama by casting eight very different actors as Aviva.

The first - and, of necessity, last - Aviva in the film is a small black girl. Between those two appearances the character morphs into many other shapes and sizes, from anorexic white teenager to rotund, sad-faced black woman to an acid-tongued Jennifer Jason Leigh. In the brief 'Huckleberry' chapter, which pays homage to both Mark Twain and Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955), Aviva is played by a young boy. There's no doubt that all this morphing is an attention-grabbing gimmick of the kind once found in Michael Jackson music videos, but the film treats it in such an offhand, matter-of-fact way that it's never obnoxious. You could see it as a poetic cipher for the 'changes' we all go through, or as an experiment in determinism (will viewers go on empathising with a likeable character no matter how much she changes?). Actually, though, the strategy has the effect of turning the film into a sequence of linked shorts in which 'Aviva' is more a concept than a character. Palindromes lacks the weight and heft of an organic narrative feature, and Aviva's quest to become pregnant has none of the stammering intensity of young Billy's quest in Happiness for his first ejaculation.

Taken as a series of shorts, Palindromes offers many pleasures. Its characters are basically live-action cartoons, but several of the actors, making the most of Solondz's excellent dialogue, turn them into charming monsters: Ellen Barkin's soft/hard Jewish mom, Stephen Adly Guirgis's born-again paedophile trucker ("How many times can I be born again?"), Sharon Wilkins' version of Aviva as a needy woman learning that Bible-belt households can be just as hypocritical as middle-class Jewish homes. Finally, though, the film boils down to a simple - obvious? - perception: we end up where we began; we change, we stay the same. From a one-trick-pony director, it's a ruefully self-aware point.


Todd Solondz
Mike S. Ryan
Derrick Tseng
Written by
Todd Solondz
Director of Photography
Tom Richmond
Mollie Goldstein
Kevin Messman
Production Designer
Dave Doernberg
Nathan Larson
Songs by
Eytan Mirsky
Matthew Brookshire
Curtis Moore
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011