Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (2004)

5. Palindromes

Todd Solondz’ career-spanning interest in trangressive topics continued with 2004’s “Palindromes.” The film attracted some controversy for its treatment of hot button topics like abortion, child molestation, teen pregnancy, and religious fanaticism, all in a post-9/11 America. The script was off-putting enough that Solondz financed the film out of his own pocket. The resulting film received some attention for being a loose sequel to “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” still Solondz’ most beloved movie, and its decision to cast different actors as one character. The reviews were mostly negative and the film isn’t talked about much today, outside of fans of the director. Many of whom, like myself, found it touching and emotionally devastating.

The story begins with the funeral of Dawn Weiner, who committed suicide during adulthood. Presented at the funeral is a young cousin of Dawn’s, Aviva. She’s traumatized by the idea of anyone being so lonely and unloved that they would kill themselves. At that moment, she decides to have as many babies as possible, as soon as possible. Pregnancy occurs when she’s thirteen years old, after a brief rutting session with the son of a family friend. Aviva’s parents insist she get an abortion while Aviva desperately wants to keep the child. Eventually, she gives into her parents’ pressure but, unbeknownst to the girl, the surgery goes wrong, robbing her of her ability to have kids at all. Afterwards, she runs away from home, encountering many different people on her quest to be loved and become pregnant.

“Palindromes” was met with some bafflement, and even accused of gimmickry, for casting eight different actors as Aviva. They ranged wildly in age, skin color, and even gender. At story’s beginning, Aviva is a little black girl. When she’s a little older, at the plot’s proper start, she’s played by a white brunette, the same age as the character was written. And then she becomes a redheaded girl of the same age. Before too long, Aviva is a young boy, an older black woman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Though the film frequently comes back to Aviva as the young brunette, what we can assume to be her actual appearance, it switches freely between the different actors. The actors all wear the character’s trademark outfit of acid-washed jeans and mid-drift baring top, signaling the character as an awkward teen naively hoping to explore her sexuality. The purpose behind this choice is evident in the film’s title. Aviva’s name is a palindrome, as is Bob, the molester. The boy who gets her pregnant begins the film calling himself Judah. By the end, he is played by a different actor and now refers to himself as Otto, also a palindromic name. At both the beginning and end, Aviva is played by the young black girl. In case the audience doesn’t get it, Solondz has a character flatly explain his belief that nobody really changes in life, that people are the same back and forth, from beginning to end. Through Avivia’s journey, she takes on many guises and feels many different things but, at the end, she has the same desires she did at the beginning.

The motivating factor behind Aviva’s journey is the same one that characterizes most of Solondz’ protagonists: A desperate need to be loved. She focuses on pregnancy as the answer to this problem. That if she has lots and lots of kids, she’ll never be without someone to love her. Anybody who has seen a Todd Solondz film before knows that parenthood is no guarantee of happiness or assurance of understanding. This thought never occurs to Aviva, who pursues her goal single-mindedly. It’s a doomed path, literally for her since she can never have children. She doesn’t know this which leads a tragic, unbelievably sad undertone to the story. This is brought to the surface at the devastating end. Aviva repeats the steps that brought her to this spot in the first place, looks into the camera, smiles, and assures us that she’ll get pregnant this time. Because it’s so incredibly sad, “Palindromes” lacks most of the humor of the director’s previous films. It’s a depressing watch and sends the viewer on an emotional journey.

Maybe the reason Aviva is so misguided in her journey to become a parent is because her parents aren’t very good people. They are different then the emotionally cold, sexually disturbed, or mentally manipulative parents seen in the last three films. Aviva’s mom and dad, played throughout by Ellen Barkin and Richard Masur, truly want the best for their daughter. However, they, the mom especially, make a few fatal mistakes early on. When explaining to her daughter how different she is from Dawn, Mom makes a point to say that Dawn wasn’t just unhappy but unattractive too. When trying to make her understand that having a child at thirteen is a bad idea, Mom talks about how she had an abortion once too, how it allowed her to spoil Aviva with lavish gifts. The parents seem to confuse physical beauty with real beauty and material possessions with worth. This is made totally clear when Mom says that a growing fetus is like a tumor. Or when Dad forces his way into his daughter’s bedroom to take her to the abortion clinic. When reunited with Mom and Dad near the end, neither seem to grasp why these things happened to Aviva, what she learned from them, and why they are the tiniest bit responsible for it.

As in “Happiness,” Solondz treats the topic of pedophilia and child molestation with a blunt matter-of-factness. Following the botched abortion, Aviva runs away from home. After being picked up her cousin Mark, she sneaks into the back of a truck. The trucker takes her to a hotel and the two have sex, the man sodomizing the young girl. It’s not a forceful act, as Aviva welcomes his actions. The next day, she’s overjoyed. An upbeat pop song plays on the soundtrack as Aviva takes a shower and walks around the hotel. The man has left her, deflating the girl’s spirit. Avivia is so desperate to be loved that she even welcomes the advances of an adult man taking advantage of her.

Rejected, lost and alone, Aviva wanders until she comes to the home of Mama Sunshine, a conservative Christan woman who operates a home for runaways and abandoned children.  Here, “Palindormes” enters its strangest chapter. She presents a phony story about her parents dying during the September 11th attacks, of a kindly and recently passed grandmother, and of an abusive foster home. The kindly older woman accepts this story at face value, taking the girl in. At breakfast the next day, everyone in Mama Sunshine’s thrown-together family introduces themselves. Each child has some sort of issue: Albino and blind, missing limbs, epileptic, cancer, mentally afflicted in some way. One older boy appears to be a closeted homosexual. These characters challenge Aviva’s ideas of physical perfection. Everyone is so happy, introducing themselves like the opening credits of an old sitcom. Even the dog, with the sickingly cute moniker of “Cuddles,” gets an introduction. Aviva even seems to draw the romantic attention of Peter Paul, one of her nerdy housemates. She joins the kids as they make music, feeling accepted for the first time in her life.

Of course, there’s a dark side to the seemingly idyllic Mama Sunside. It’s hinted at early when Peter Paul takes Aviva to a junkyard in the woods, where aborted fetuses are thrown out. The boy mentions that Mama Sunshine takes the children there sometimes, showing them the remains. The children sing songs about how every life is sacred. Mama seems to emotionally manipulate Aviva into staying much the same way her parents did. Soon enough, we see that Mama Sunshine is part of a group of religious zealots that blackmail recovering child molesters into assassinating abortion doctors. They are not even as welcoming to Aviva as they first appear, secretly calling her a “whore” and a “slut.” This is prickly subject matter and Solondz, naturally, holds nothing back. Though “Palindromes” obviously condemns murderers and bigots, it acknowledges that these are people too. Their togetherness and certainty in belief can be inviting. These are real human beings, not straw men.

One of “Palindromes’” true weaknesses is an over-reliance on coincidence. The trucker and pedophile the family is using is Bob, the same trucker and pedophile Aviva crossed earlier. The doctor that’s been targeted for death is the same doctor that performed Aviva’s abortion. Without this narrative shortcuts, we wouldn’t have the incredibly emotional conclusion to that storyline. Aviva insists that she’s in love with Bob. She eggs him on to murder the doctor, wanting revenge for her unborn baby. This all goes horribly wrong, leading cops to the motel where they’re staying. Aviva and Bob have a heart-to-heart, the pedophile wondering out loud how often a man can be reborn. She begs him to stay, both having pipe dreams of marriage and happiness. It doesn’t end well.

Most stories would end there. But “Palindromes” continues on a little further. We see Aviva’s life returning to normal. Her parents attempt to make her forget about her life on the road, throwing her a birthday party. She insist on inviting Mama Sunshine and her family. They don’t show. Who does show is Mark, Dawn Wiener’s super-nerd older brother. Matthew Faber reprises his role from “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” appearing even skinnier and rattier. Mark has been accused by Missy, who fans will remember as Dawn’s pampered younger sister, of molesting her daughter. Aviva convinces Mom to invite him, hoping to strike up a relationship with another pedophile. Mark isn’t a molester and instead delivers a depressing monologue, justifying the film’s title and preparing the audience for the lyrical, crushing finale.

Solondz mostly cast the film with unknowns. Ellen Barkin and Jennifer Jason Leigh, both more character actress then big stars, are the closest the film has to name actors. Valerie Shusterov codifies Aviva as a character, confirming her awkwardness. Rachel Corr and Shyana Levine honestly look enough like Shusterov that I thought they were all the same actress on my first viewing. Hannah Freiman, with her fiery red hair, plays the girl during her most vulnerable moments. Sharon Wilkins is the large black woman that plays Aviva during the Mama Sunshine scenes, who got most of the press when the film was new. Her appearance betrays her incredibly soft, gentle voice, perfect for expressing the character’s fear and uncertainty. Of the other cast, Stephen Adly Guirgis is heartbreaking as the remorseful pedophile Bob. He also creates the film’s few laughs, when attempting to get the story straight about why he’s hanging out with a thirteen year old girl.

As in every Solondz film, music plays a huge role in “Palindromes.” The director holds back on his usual habit of contrasting the depressing action with up-beat pop music until the end credits. Instead, a meloncholey, lonely, and longing score commands most of the film. Nathan Larson and Nina Persson provide most of the music. “Lullaby,” a simple but sad number composed of hummed words, is repeated several times. It’s most effective use comes during an otherwise silent moment when Aviva, now played by a little boy, wanders the countryside. She eventually finds a child’s toy boat by the river. As she floats down the stream, a pure white lamb walks on the shore, symbolizing her as an innocent in a troubled world. Another notable song is “Up on a Cloud,” which features incredibly sad lyrics, and bolsters several transition scenes.

“Palindromes” might be the most difficult film Todd Solondz has ever made, which is really saying something. Its subject matter is unpleasant and its approach is bracing and harrowing. Unlike his other features, there’s little humor and no ironic detachment to soften the blow. This also makes it his truest and most humanistic film. For those willing to approach its harshness and heartbreak, “Palindromes” is powerful and unforgettable. [Grade: A]

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