“I know you’re not a paedophile. Paedophiles love children.” - Aviva
Palindromes is the fourth film by director Todd Solondz whose high watermark I would argue was the excellent Happiness. Whereas the various strands of storyline in Happiness dovetail together marvellously to both horrify and awaken the viewer, Palindromes meanders with uncertainty and abrasiveness that rarely charms. But there is good stuff there, if one is prepared to dig deep.
Spoiler alert: Movie contents about to be revealed/discussed
Aviva is a 13 year-old girl who is defined by her one wish which is to have a baby. Her characterisation rarely goes beyond this single motivation and she is an innocent, but empty vessel of longing. “If I have a baby, I’ll always have someone to love,” says Aviva, whose life lacks unconditional love. Her mother, played excellently by Ellen Barkin, is a modern mother – fulfils all roles, except the ones that really matter. A robot could make a good modern mother. So, when it happens that Aviva does manage to get herself up the duff by her porky cousin, her modern mother ‘does the right thing’, i.e. forces her into having an abortion. Any 21st Century, right-thinking individual knows a 13 year-old girl shouldn’t be having a baby. What’s that? You want to keep it? Don’t talk such nonsense, girl. Come along now. The pro-choice parent gives her child no choice. The abortion goes wrong leaving Aviva barren. When the doctor informs Aviva’s mother that he had to perform a hysterectomy, her reaction is “I’ll never be a grandmother”. One breathes a sigh of relief that her particular selfish gene shall not be perpetuated.
The movie then turns to Aviva conducting a kind of road-trip, the intended destination motherhood (not necessarily biological). She hooks up with a trucker who she uses in an attempt to get pregnant. Mr Solondz here twists the situation in that it is Aviva who is the real predator, entrapping (albeit briefly) the trucker for her own ends. Unsurprisingly, he does one, disappearing in his truck, leaving Aviva at a motel and still childless.
At this point, I should make reference to a major aspect of the movie that doesn’t quite work. Eight different actresses play Aviva, all quite different, ranging from a skinny red-haired teen to a 20+ stone black woman. This is to be frank quite baffling to follow at several stages, especially when combined with an episodic plot structure (almost one for each actress) that doesn’t hang together quite right. The movie attempts to be circular, but the connections between events and actresses are ambiguous and the viewer pays the price by being continually confused.
Dreamily, the movie changes from Aviva’s abandonment at the motel to her wandering along an idyllic stream and being found by Mama Sunshine, a right-wing Christian who has adopted around ten+ orphans, each being disabled in someway, mentally or physically. Aviva is taken in by Mama Sunshine and for a short time all is well. Aviva chows down on Mama Sunshine’s home-baked ‘Jesus Tears’ and breaks bread at breakfast with the rest of the Sunshine gang. We’re then treated to a “Sunshine Production” where all the children sing and dance enthusiastically to a rocking right-wing song. Mr Solondz puts us in a difficult position here. The temptation is clearly to laugh at these children, yet guilt at doing so lies close by. However, what is particularly interesting in the “Sunshine” section of the film is that presented before us are walking abortions, or at least children who for some would have found themselves in the medical waste disposals. Here lies one of the successful parts of the film in that Mr Solondz manages to avoid dictating a view on abortion and instead shows the contradictions that exist within the opposing frameworks of opinion on the subject.
Just as the pro-choice mother gives no choice to her child, Mama Sunshine, the pro-life ‘mother’ is in fact a murderer. The trucker, feeling guilt at the bad things he’s done in his life turns up at the Sunshine residence a Christian. To make amends for his guilt he agrees to assassinate an abortionist on behalf of Mama Sunshine and her hubby. Aviva seeing another chance, sneaks into his cab and ends up accompanying him on the ‘hit’. Sniper rifle out, the trucker gets the abortionist in his sights. The abortionist is busy in his family home playing charades with his loving family and children all around, looking happy and wholesome. The trucker, sweating with doubt hesitates. Aviva, the formerly passive and innocent girl goads him, “Do it! Do it! Do it!”. A shot rings out just as the abortionist’s young daughter jumps up, the bullet hitting her. Another shot and the abortionist goes down too.
Thus, presented before us are two opposing mothers and attitudes to abortions mirrored and connected by a teenager who can find no unconditional love. One of the last scenes of the movie is of Aviva having returned home, talking to Mark Wiener (a character from Mr Solondz’s first movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse). Mr Solondz uses Mr Wiener to postulate the overriding philosophy in the film; firstly, that everything ultimately stays the same, thus the title, Palindromes:
Mark: People always end up the way they started out. No one ever changes. They think they do but they don't. If you're the depressed type now that's the way you'll always be. If you're the mindless happy type now, that's the way you'll be when you grow up. You might lose some weight, your face may clear up, get a body tan, breast enlargement, a sex change, it makes no difference. Essentially, from in front, from behind. Whether you're 13 or 50, you will always be the same.
Mr Solondz has received a lot of flak for taking this position as it does appear to reduce matters to a simplistic banality. Combined with the often clumsy plot devices, this makes for a huge flaw in the film and undermines much of the moral credibility. However, it should always be coupled with what Mark goes on to say, which is much more lucid and close to the bone:
Mark: There's no freewill. I mean, I have no choice but to choose what I choose, to do as I do, to live as I live. Ultimately, we're all just robots programmed arbitrarily by nature's genetic code.
Aviva: Isn't there any hope?
Mark: For what? We hope or despair because of the way we've been programmed. Genes and randomness, that's all there is and none of it matters.
Aviva: Does that mean you're never going get married and have children?
Mark: I have no anent desire to get married or have kids. But that's beyond my control. Really, it makes no difference. Since the planet's fast running out of natural resources and we won't make it into the next century.
Aviva: What if you're wrong? What if there is a God?
Mark: If that makes you feel better.
I do not believe that Mr Solondz is advocating a position that people are not responsible for their actions, or are unconscious of them. Rather he is pushing the viewer to recognise the many layers of bullshit that are created around ourselves to keep us from seeing what is ultimately a relatively depressing reality. Mr Solondz takes the long way round to tell us this in the movie, and at times you do wonder if it is worthwhile, but it is, just. One thinks that a few more rewrites might have resulted in something far superior.
Written and Directed by Todd Solondz