The last American film to milk belly laughs from the abortion issue, 1996’s dark comedy Citizen Ruth, came from a pre-Sideways Alexander Payne. That film centered on pregnant, paint-huffing Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), whose ambivalence toward her swollen abdomen made her a pawn of both sides of the child/choice controversy.
Now Todd Solondz, the only director whose ’90s output (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) trumped Payne’s (see also Election) for both comedy and darkness, has also made a film using abortion as its central thread. Like Payne’s film, Solondz’s looks past the political issue for a personal take on how people treat, mistreat, and use one another.
Thirteen-year-old New Jersey suburbanite Aviva (played by eight different performers) has an unquenchable thirst for impregnation. When she sates said thirst at the first possible opportunity, Aviva’s mother, Joyce (Ellen Barkin), flips out and schedules an abortion, overruling Aviva’s objections during a mother-daughter conversation that rivals Happiness’ climactic father-son chat for sheer squirm factor. Aviva then runs away, landing in a household of disabled Christian-right-wingers who front both a pop band and a militant pro-life mission.
Solondz’s title refers to words spelled the same forward and backward, but his concern here is not wordplay, but people and their inability to break free of their own crippling circular patterns. This concept’s central expression comes from a monologue delivered by Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber), brother of Dollhouse’s Dawn, arguing that human behavior is genetically predetermined, rendering the notion of free will a farce.
This point gets underscored by the surreal physical changes Aviva goes through over the course of the film; outmatching Luis Buńuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire by a sum of six, she’s played by eight actors (most famously Jennifer Jason Leigh) of varying shapes, sizes, ages, skin colors, and even genders. By Palindrome’s end, Aviva’s external fluctuations barely register, for her inner personality—kind, trusting, and maternal to a fault—has remained unchanged.
As all of Solondz’s films do, Palindromes concocts a volatile high ball of life’s cruelty crystallized—characters incapable of a sex life, let alone love, without hurting each other or breaking a few laws—splashed with a dash of hope, at least for us in the audience if not the characters on screen. But what really unnerves is that, served with this much skill and emotional depth, Solondz’s opaque mixture tastes urgent, honest, and true.