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Palindromes (2004)

Directed by:

Todd Solondz

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 100 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Country: United States

Young Aviva declares to her mother (Ellen Barkin) that she does not want to end up like Dawn Wiener, who has just committed suicide. Instead what Aviva wants is babies, and several years later, aged 12, she manages to get herself pregnant, only to be pressured into an abortion by her parents. Unaware that she underwent an emergency hysterectomy during the termination, Aviva adopts a false name and runs away, hoping to fall pregnant again – and so begins her strange journey through an American Wonderland of paedophile truckers, born-again Christians, rescued children and pro-life extremists – a journey which will change Aviva’s life forever, and yet take her right back to where she started.

There are many films, like ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’ (1977), ‘Fight Club’ (1999), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Identity (2003), Switchblade Romance (2003) and Last Life in the Universe (2003), that have portrayed a single character through multiple actors to illustrate in the most concrete visual terms the conundrums of personal identity – but few films have taken this device quite as far as Todd Solondz’s ‘Palindromes’, whose lead character Aviva is variously embodied by a six-year old girl (Emani Sledge), four young teenagers (Valerie Shusterov, Hannah Freiman, Rachel Corr, Shayna Levine), two women (Sharon Wilkins, Jennifer Jason Leigh), and even a twelve-year old boy (Will Denton), so that, even though most of the film’s events unfold over only a few months, from one moment to the next she might be fat or thin, long-haired or short, black or white, female or male. Yet it is a tribute to Solondz’s filmmaking skills that, for all the drastic metamorphoses that her character undergoes, Aviva is always recognisable as essentially the same person – just as no matter how irreversible the wear and tear suffered by her body, her childlike innocence and dreams remain (however fruitlessly) intact.

If Solondz has often (somewhat unfairly) been branded a one-trick pony, here he turns such criticism to his own artistic advantage, using strategic references to his previous films to elucidate further the paradoxes of stasis and change which form the central preoccupation of ‘Palindromes’. From the outset, Aviva is motivated by a desire to escape the fate of family friend Dawn Wiener – but as Dawn was the protagonist of Solondz’s breakthrough film ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ (1995), this is also a programmatic assertion of Solondz’s attempt to depart in ‘Palindromes’ from his own cinematic origins. Yet even if Solondz has never before trodden such stylised mythic terrains, more familiar from the writings of Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll or films like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939) and ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (1955), he cannot help but mark them with his own distinctive footprints – the teen gawkiness of ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’, the paedophilia so prominent in his ‘Happiness’ (1998), the family dysfunction (and self-referentiality) of ‘Storytelling’ (2001) – so that he, like Aviva, travels full circle towards what he is fleeing, even to the extent he ends up putting a key speech about the impossibility of escaping one’s past self (“people always end up the way they were, no-one changes”) in the mouth of another character from ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’, Dawn’s brother Mark (Matthew Faber).

Todd Solondz, you see, just cannot help but be himself, which is why once again he has made an unusual, uncomfortable and not exactly likeable film about the uglier side of everyday living, similar to everything else he has done, and yet different all the same – and, in keeping with its title, it will have you replaying it backwards and forwards in your head for days.

It's Got: Awkward sex, abortion, paedophilia, Christian fundamentalism, and a loose visual notion of identity.

It Needs: To be avoided by fun-loving rom-com fans - this film is grimly disturbing glimpse into the American nightmare.

Alternatives:

Last Life in the Universe, That Obscure Object of Desire, The Lovers of the Arctic Circle, The Night of the Hunter, Welcome to the Dollhouse

Summary

Solondz blends suburban hyperreality with the mythic journey to show that the more people change, the more they stay the same.

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