The audience at Palindromes, the fourth feature written and directed by Todd Solondz, laughed pretty hard but only intermittently at the travails of poor little Aviva, a 13-year-old girl in suburban New Jersey dead-set on getting pregnant. That is to say, we were being awfully good sports, and not because one bleak thing after another happens to the helplessly sensitive, blobby protagonist--that's what's funny--but because Solondz has such an unsettled relationship to his own ironic bent that he constantly fumbles the craft of comedy. And if he's not having fun relating Aviva's determinedly depressive misadventures then what has he invited us into the theater for? (He certainly doesn't claim to have fun directing movies, a process he says is "always assaultive and nightmarish and horrible" in this 30 January 2002 Salon interview from around the time his previous feature Storytelling was released.)
Palindromes superficially resembles Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's sporty, caustic Citizen Ruth (1996; click here for my chapter about it), in which the irredeemable central character, an aerosol-huffing young woman with a history of getting knocked up and giving her children away, is arrested on a drug charge and told confidentially by a judge that the court might go easy if she ends her current pregnancy. She's then taken up as a "cause" first by Christian anti-abortionists and then by feminist pro-abortionists. Both groups assume Ruth can be enlisted on their side, but Ruth is so very limited and self-centered she can barely grasp, or even focus on, what she represents to them. In the end only money speaks a language she understands. Payne and Taylor take a subject that everybody feels strongly about and daringly use it to dramatize their total skepticism about human motives. And it plays wickedly well because they're wizzes at comedy.
In Palindromes Solondz follows the same line, with variations, and gets maybe 10-20% of the laughs. He begins with Aviva's mother "lovingly" insisting she have an abortion, which ends in an emergency hysterectomy. Aviva then runs away from home and is taken in by a Christian anti-abortion couple named Sunshine who have adopted a variety of disabled and abused children whom they train to perform devout pop music routines for a fundamentalist entertainment circuit. It's not all sunshine, however; the father of the family conspires with a local doctor and a pedophiliac loner to murder surgeons who perform abortions. Dr. Fleisher, who presided over Aviva's botched procedure, is next on their list, and Aviva is eager to help. This criminal escapade miscarries and Aviva ends up back in her parents' house where they throw a welcome home party for her and she, apparently unaware of what happened to her in Dr. Fleisher's care, tries to get pregnant again. Her quest for motherhood thus takes intent-but-dim Aviva in a big circle, at the end of which she hasn't even discovered the plain anatomical fact about herself, much less whatever truths young people in movies are supposed to discover at the end of their journeys.