Film review: 'Palindromes' a mixed up mess

Solondz's quirky casting structure just pretentious gimmick

Published: Friday, May 13 2005 1:05 p.m. MDT

Alexander Brickel plays Peter Paul and Sharon Wilkins plays a sweet, vulnerable Aviva toward the end of her adventure in "Palindromes."

Macall Polay, Wellspring

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PALINDROMES — ** — Hannah Freiman, Ellen Barkin, Jennifer Jason Leigh; not rated, probable R (profanity, sex, violence); see Page W2 for theaters.

Aviva Victor is a 6-year-old black girl. She's also a series of 13- to 14-year-old white girls, an androgynous white boy, a heavyset black woman and, ultimately, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Confused? Well, don't feel bad. Todd Solondz, the writer-director of "Palindromes," seems just as mixed-up as you are.

After skewering society for its taboos and hypocrisies with his previous films, Solondz's aim this time isn't as true. That lack of focus serves only to reveal his casting structure as a pretentious gimmick and not the clever revelation it could have been.

Solondz says his point in having eight different people play the character of Aviva in a series of vignettes is a reflection of the title: that regardless of the changes we make in our lives, we are still essentially the same. Forward and backward, like a palindrome — like the name of the film's emotionally needy, wayward heroine — we're doomed to stagnation.

"Palindromes" features teen pregnancy (Aviva gets pregnant at 13 while fooling around with a family friend); abortion (which Aviva's mother, played by Ellen Barkin, forces her to have); child molestation (Aviva runs away from home and gets involved with a truck driver); and the murder of abortion doctors.

But Solondz also mercilessly makes fun of members of the Christian right while seeming simultaneously to embrace them. Fervent anti-abortion activists flail and fling themselves at Aviva (played with believable angst at this point by Hannah Freiman) as she and her mother make their way toward a suburban New Jersey clinic. Their behavior is so outrageous, it's almost played for laughs.

Toward the end of Aviva's adventure — when she's portrayed with great vulnerability and sweetness by Sharon Wilkins — she ends up being welcomed warmly into foster home run by the devout Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk). It's a multicultural Shangri-la where all the kids pitch in to do chores and everyone laughs heartily around the breakfast table at each other's lame jokes.

Solondz apparently is trying to say something about the value of life. Yet he also ridicules his characters by having them perform as a "Partridge Family"-style singing group, with contemporary Christian lyrics and Backstreet Boy dance moves. He can't have it both ways and expect to connect with his audience.

"Palindromes" is not rated but would probably receive an R for language, sexual situations and violence. Running time: 100 minutes.