It's hard to imagine an odder and yet more appropriate movie to open in the all-obliterating shadow of the new Star Wars than Palindromes. Todd Solondz's new film is a close encounter of the most discomfiting kind, an inscrutable act of artistic brinksmanship where the sublime and the shockingly tacky become the strangest of bedfellows.
This is a movie that wants to poke at our most tender sensibilities, whether we like it or not, positioning Palindromes a universe away from the We Aim To Please sensibility of your typical Hollywood blockbuster. Palindromes is many things, but we might as well begin by calling it the Anti-Episode III.
The movie wastes no time messing with our heads. Right up front, there's that tasteful opening dedication, "In loving memory of Dawn Weiner" - whom you may remember as the fictional 11-year-old geek from Solondz's breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Dawn doesn't really have anything to do with Palindromes, as it turns out, so we can only wonder why the director seized this particular opportunity to knock off the only remotely likeable character from his one film that enjoyed a modicum of success. Maybe Solondz is just indulging himself with a little random, morbid humor here, but it's hard to shake the feeling that this is a more formal sort of gesture: a filmmaker thumbing his nose at his characters, his audience, maybe at the last vestige of commerciality too.
In any event, Solondz has never been an easy one to figure. From Dollhouse on through Happiness, Storytelling and now Palindromes, Todd Solondz has proven himself a button pusher par excellence, and a strong contender for the title of America's Most Offensive Filmmaker. But unlike the previous title holder, that aging imp John Waters, Solondz doesn't just shock our sense of propriety; he goes right for the throat, aiming at our emotions and deepest held convictions.
There's a cartoon-like quality to many of Solondz's provocations that also recalls Waters, but without the intrinsic eagerness to please. His films cut deeper and give new meaning to the phrase "painfully funny," prompting our laughter even as we cringe.
Solondz is thought of in some circles as American cinema's poet of the miserable, but he has also been accused of everything from misanthropy to gratuitous wallowing in ugliness and cruelty, and Palindromes is certain to re-ignite the debate, big time. The film opens at a funeral, with one of the most excruciatingly awkward elegies you'll ever see, then manages to rattle our cages with queasily comic scenes of absurd underage sex, parental bullying and abortion, all within the first 15 minutes.
But the big conceit here, the one bound to divide even the most sophisticated audiences right down the middle, is that Solondz takes Bunuel's old Obscure Object of Desire trick and amplifies it fourfold, casting eight different actors to play Aviva, the runaway 13-year-old girl who is Palindrome's main character.
These actors include a couple of skinny little white girls, a very large black woman, a boy, and 43-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh. Solondz's decision to cast multiple actors in the same part might simply sound like a contrarian's very pretentious way of disorienting us, but the filmmaker has gone on record claiming that nothing could be further from the truth.
By having Aviva's character transcend age, body type, skin color and even gender, Solondz insists that he's actually inviting more viewers to identify with her, to look beyond the physical trappings and into the girl's immutable core. The director's risky strategy doesn't always work - the sheer range of acting styles and physical differences is often so jarring that it's impossible to keep from snickering - but it's certainly an interesting way of pointing out that Aviva's something of a palindrome herself. She remains the same no matter how we look at her, identical both backwards and forwards in space and time.
Palindromes is, in many ways, an updated, more perverse Perils of Pauline, with Aviva (who, for those desperate to make a connection, turns out to be Dawn Weiner's cousin) yanked from the bosom of her cozy suburban family and out into the real world, where she encounters a series of strange and often unpleasant things.
In the movie's most controversial sequence, she hooks up with a born-again caregiver called Mama Sunshine, who presides over an extended brood of the blind, the deformed and the otherwise disabled (played, in a move sure to get many viewers' blood boiling, by real-live disabled kids). At one point, as if he's gauging just how far he can push us, Solondz even gives us an extended gospel-funk production number enthusiastically performed by a troupe of boys and girls who are all physically or mentally challenged in some serious way.
Solondz seems to be crossing the line in a scene like that one, trying to pass off a sick joke as something more, but most of Palindromes hits its mark, and the people we meet are mostly complicated creatures, worthy of compassion as well as ridicule. Innocent but not entirely blameless herself, Aviva's unmistakable attraction to several of her tormentors is both appalling and curiously poignant.
Mama Sunshine is a good Christian in the best sense, but she's also given to stupid rants about "freedom toast," and eventually segues into sanctioning an abortion clinic murder in the name of the Lord. A middle-aged truck driver who once sodomized little Aviva, but is now re-born, turns out to be Mama Sunshine's God-fearing hit man.
It's clear that Solondz has a fascination for the grotesque and the mean-spirited, but the best parts of Palindromes push past that, to a place that calls cruelty into question by appearing to revel in it. The movie treads a fine line between celebrating and skewering its misfit characters, and many of us in the audience may have trouble navigating that line. But watching Solondz do his tricky balancing act in Palindromes can be a fascinating, funny and unspeakably awful experience, sometimes all at the same time.