Director: Todd Solondz
Stars: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ellen Barkin, Stephen Adly Guirgis
Aviva is thirteen, awkward and sensitive. Her mother Joyce is warm and loving, as is her father, Steve, a regular guy who does have a fierce temper from time to time. The film revolves around her family, friends and neighbors.
Palindromes is a 2004 film from writer/director Todd Solondz. I wanted to watch a movie for me one evening, something I could enjoy without having to worry. I should have known that “from the director of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness meant it would not be a positive experience.
The film tells the story of a thirteen-year-old girl named Aviva – her name being a Palindrome. Aviva wants to have a baby, which she accomplishes by having some rather emotionless and awkward sex with a neighborhood boy named Judah. Aviva’s parents, however, have the good sense to talk Aviva out of having that baby – letting her know that a thirteen-year-old raising a child is probably not the best idea. So Aviva gets an abortion – a decision she immediately regrets and runs away from home. On the road she falls in love with a pedophile trucker, lives briefly with a religious fundamental family, and in the end I suppose there’s this depressing moral about that it means to be a teenager and the hopelessness of adulthood. In short – it’s a Todd Solondz movie.
Aiva is played by 8 different actors. The film is broken into 9 segments, with the person playing Aviva changing each time and all 8 actors playing the role at the same time in the final segment. 4 of these actors are girls who all look like the same teen girl. One of the actors is a boy (Will Denton), another one is a young black girl while another is a very large black girl (Sharon Wilkins). Finally she is also played by Jennifer Jason Leigh who is definitely NOT a thirteen-year-old girl (she was 42 at the time but does a fine job pretending to be a young teen). I am not certain why the director chose to do this. My assumption, what I take from this, is that by having this girl in so many different shapes, colors and sizes it creates a universal face for Aviva – that her story could be ANY thirteen-year-old girls story.
Not a Comedy
Every review I see calls each film by Todd Solondz a hilarious dark comedy. Who the hell is saying that? Who is applying the words “hilarious” and “comedy” to this guy’s movies? They are good movies, but they are dark, depressing and incredibly uncomfortable dramas. Of the Solondz films I’ve seen:
- Welcome to the Dollhouse – Depressing film about bullying and middle school. Not a comedy
- Happiness – Not happy at all – there’s a guy in this movie raping little boys. Not a comedy
- Dark Horse – Depressing account of an immature man-child who never improves and dies unloved
Palindromes is no different. It’s depressing, uncomfortable and in no way a comedy. How uncomfortable?
The scene where Aviva has sex with Judah is uncomfortable to watch, not only because of their ages but the unloving tone to it all. Later, when Aviva runs away from home and meets a pedophile trucker who calls himself “Joe” she sees romance in their sexual encounter. Doesn’t make it any more comfortable. I mean, watching a grown man copulate with a thirteen year old is awkward enough – but when he flips her over and she asks “can you pregnant from there?” I would question the mentality of a person who finds that funny. Aviva finds a home with Mama Sunshine and all the runaway and abandoned kids she’s given a home to – kids that all have disabilities (missing limbs, blindness, Down’s Syndrome) and has them sing songs about Jesus and abortion. They have their own physician, Doctor Dan (Richard Riehl) who shows the Sunshines that Aviva is a child whore with all the pictures he took of her vagina. Aviva goes back to her pedophile trucker (whose name is now “Earl”) and they go to murder an abortionist – a kind looking man with a loving family. The first shot misses and kills the guy’s little girl while the second shot kills the doctor. Earl and Aviva check in to a motel and the clerk knows something’s up. After revealing that his real name is Bob, this pedo commits suicide by cop.
Oh there’s more, but before I get to that there’s another thing about this movie to address…
Palindromes is something of a sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse. It takes place a few years later and in the same neighborhood and while it’s not about the same characters – they make appearances by virtue of being in the same area and related to Aviva’s family. The film opens with “In Loving Memory of Dawn Weiner,” Dawn Weiner being the protagonist of Welcome to the Dollhouse (played then by Heather Matrazzo). The opening scene is Dawn’s funeral where we get a monologue from her brother Mark (Matthew Faber – reprising the role) gives a eulogy where we learn that after Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn Weiner didn’t accomplish much. In fact she actually committed suicide. Other characters are mentioned, like Missy Weiner, but the only one at all involved in the story is Mark.
Mark appears later, trying to help out Aviva, but she runs away (and hooks up with that trucker). It’s still a notable scene as he points out that Aviva’s name is a palindrome and explains “always the same, backwards or forwards. Never changes” When Aviva returns home she wants her parents to invite Mark Weiner to the party. They explain why they shouldn’t, that Mark is a pedophile. Apparently he molested his niece, the daughter of Missy Weiner who was sexually abused in Welcome to the Dollhouse (and that’s recapped in this scene). Aviva invites him anyway and talks with him at the party. Their discussion is what provides the film’s theme. Mark explains that nobody ever changes – that who you are at thirteen is who you’ll be at 50. You an change your looks, get a boob job, get a sex change, gain or lose weight – you will always be the same. (Upon thinking about it – maybe that’s why 8 actors played Aviva, to establish this “always the same” theme).
However the most uncomfortable thing about that scene is when Mark thanks Aviva for inviting him to the party and tells her “I’m not a pedophile.” Aviva, played at this point by Jennifer Jason Leigh, says, in an almost condescending manner, “I know. Pedophiles love children.” WHAT THE HELL DOES SHE MEAN BY THAT?! Is she talking about love? That a pedophile loves a child like romantically while all Mark did was fondle and use some kid? I’m not buying that. I’m not a subscriber to that whole “pedophilia is a sexuality and people are born that way” school of accepting their depravity. Pedophiles don’t love kids – so what the hell does this line mean?
What’s it All Mean?
Except for that really off line about “Pedophiles love kids,” I enjoy the movie. Awkward as it is, I appreciate what the movie was trying to do and what it had to say. Thirteen-year-olds do have sex, and without proper social guidance to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong, they end up making the poor decisions Aviva makes. There is damn passionate scene (actually two scenes) where Aviva’s mom, played by Ellen Barkin, is trying to convince Aviva to get an abortion. She tries to explain to her that having a child at 13 is a poor decision, that it’s throwing her whole life away. While Aviva does get the abortion, she has no love for her parents afterward and is still committed to having a baby – she’s still trying. I feel that the mom handled the situation as best she could, it’s how I feel I would have handled it. However it was not good enough – this girl makes some horrible life decisions as a result.
The film addresses some tough topics unflinchingly. It’s a serious film – not a comedy because nothing in this film is a laughing issue nor is it treated as such. My only regret is that I didn’t watch something happy as a palette cleanser because I really need one right about now.