Todd Solondz
heads west



If you come to this review already familiar with the word “palindrome,” you are probably someone who likes puzzles. Director Todd Solondz takes the title for his new film from an obscure noun used to describe names, numbers, words, and phrases that read the same forward and backward (think Bob, pop, and 2002, for example). “Palindrome” is not a Jewish word (it’s roots are Greek), but people taught to read from right-to-left as well as left-to-right may have an edge in this kind of game. With PALINDROMES, Solondz both plays and wins.

Solondz first achieved recognition for his 1995 film WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, the savagely funny story of a young Jewish girl desperately trying to survive her first year in a suburban New Jersey junior high school. Short, dark, and chubby with enormous eyeglasses, Dawn Wiener is a natural target. Although she is usually squeezed into something floral, she might as well be wearing a bull’s eye on her tukhes.

Dawn’s home life is also miserable. Her older brother Mark is a computer nerd obsessed with getting into a top college. Her younger sister Missy is a steel-hearted sprite forever prancing around the house in a pink tutu. The more sullen and withdrawn Dawn becomes, the more her mother ignores her. Mark is more interesting, and Missy is easier on the eyes.

Imagine Solondz’s surprise when DOLLHOUSE became a cult hit. He had intended Dawn to be an outcast, but people identify with her. “That was me! I was just like that!” people often tell him. DOLLHOUSE won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996, and grossed almost $5 million at the box office (a huge amount in the independent film world).

PALINDROMES opens at Dawn’s funeral; Mark gives the eulogy while Mrs. Wiener wails in the front pew. (Both actors reprise their DOLLHOUSE roles.) Safely tucked into her own frilly bed that night, Dawn’s young cousin Aviva wants to know if she’s anything like Dawn. Oh no, her mother assures her with a shudder. In fact, the girl resembles Dawn in many ways. Aviva. Mom. Dad. Let the games begin.

Even though she’s barely a teenager, Aviva wants to have a baby, so when the occasion presents itself, a family friend named Judah obliges her. Her liberal parents are horrified. They wheedle, beg and threaten, but Aviva will neither tell them who the father is nor agree to end her pregnancy. Finally her mother tells her she has no choice and drives her to an abortion clinic.

As soon as she’s recovered, Aviva punishes her parents by running away. One adventure follows another until Aviva is finally home again. To prove that everything is fine now, her parents give a party. Family and friends alike maintain a semblance of normalcy by ignoring her. Then Judah comes to visit, asking to be called by his middle name: Otto. When the film ends, Otto and Aviva are engaged, once again, in trying to make a baby.

As the plot outline makes clear, one goal of PALINDROMES is to turn three very hot topics (motherhood, teenage pregnancy, and abortion) into riddles. To enter the game yourself, begin by dissecting the name Aviva: the palindrome resolves itself into polarities (AV and VA) linked together by an “I”.

Before he made PALINDROMES, all of Todd Solondz’s films were firmly anchored in northern New Jersey (with brief side trips to Manhattan and Boca Raton). But in PALINDROMES he transcends his old limits, along with the accusation that he is simply “a self-hating Jew.” By sending Aviva across the Delaware River, south and west into the American heartland, Solondz proves himself an equal opportunity exposer of hypocrisy, skewering characters on both sides of the red-state/blue-state divide.

PALINDROMES is anchored by two outstanding performances. Ellen Barkin plays Joyce Victor, Aviva’s blue-state Mom, and Debra Monk plays Mama Sunshine, Aviva’s red-state Mom.

Joyce Victor is a Hadassah archetype: effusive, generous, conscientious, and completely devoted to the well-being of her husband and daughter. But no matter how many times Joyce tells her that she loves her, Aviva still has her doubts. She thinks Joyce will only love her if she’s smart enough, pretty enough, and completely obedient. That’s why she’s so worried about her resemblance to her cousin Dawn. Barkin’s finely nuanced performance captures the depth of Joyce’s love for Aviva in all its requisite complexity.

Alone and adrift after running away, Aviva is welcomed into Mama Sunshine’s family of cast-offs. Each adopted child has some kind of disability or disfigurement, yet all appear to thrive under the beneficent wing of this devoted Evangelical Christian. But Debra Monk gives Mama Sunshine just as many layers as Ellen Barkin gives Joyce Victor. When Aviva sees a big picture of the Twin Towers in her bedroom, she conjures up a past aimed straight at Mama Sunshine’s soft-spots. Beneath the veneer of acceptance, Mama Sunshine’s heart is also full of prejudice.

Aviva, however, is not a person; she’s a palindrome (in this case an “I” stuck between pointedly polar opposites). So Solondz chooses to represent her by having someone different play the “Aviva” character in every scene. His actresses vary greatly in age, appearance, and ethnicity. In one sequence (called “Huckleberry” in homage Mark Twain’s iconic American wanderer), Aviva is even played by an androgynous-looking teenage boy.

As odd as this choice sounds in the abstract, it feels totally appropriate in context. The truth is that as soon as we meet each other, we begin making judgments, as if appearance were, in fact, reality. So if Solondz were to choose one actress to play “the real Aviva,” we would immediately make assumptions about her. But the riddle of human identity cannot be solved on the basis of first impressions. Dawn Wiener learned this way back in junior high school. Have we?

One Aviva, Two Avivas, Three Avivas, Four…

Hannah Freiman as Aviva
(+ Ellen Barkin)

Shayna Levine as Aviva
(+ Stephen Adly Guirgis)

Sharon Wilkins as Aviva
(+ Alexander Brickel)

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Aviva
(+ Ellen Barkin)

Photo Credits: Macall Polay/Courtesy of Wellspring Media, Inc.


Warning: PALINDROMES is a very dark comedy with disturbing incidents and profane language. It is not suitable for children, and not recommended for adults seeking an evening of light entertainment.

PALINDROMES opens in Chicago (at the Landmark) and in Evanston (at the Century) on April 29th, and at the Regal Theater in Miami on May 6th. Welcome to the DOLLHOUSE is available on DVD.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/15/05)

This article is a slightly expanded version
of the reviews originally published
in the May 2005 edition of the
(Volume 2 Number 8) 
& is posted here with their permission.

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