Todd Solondz insists that all of his films are love stories—and that his latest, Palindromes, is no exception.
“This young girl, she wants to be a mom,” says Solondz, in Washington to appear at the movie’s Filmfest DC screening. “That’s a way of accessing unconditional love. So this odyssey is nothing but a quest for that unconditional love. For all the political and moral charge to it, at heart the narrative is very simple.”
Coming from the man himself, who, with his nasally voice, giant green glasses, and raspberry V-neck sweater, resembles a sedated, Technicolored Woody Allen, the proposition seems reasonable. But anyone who’s seen such sordid Solondz fare as Welcome to the Dollhouse or Happiness knows that with this writer-director, nothing is simple—or sacred. Palindromes, in fact, may be the 45-year-old filmmaker’s most complicated and controversial film to date. For starters, this “young girl” eager for motherhood? She’s 13. And though she doesn’t age during the movie, Aviva (note that spelling) is played by several actors of different ages, races, and genders.
“There are eight, but it could have been 80,” Solondz says. “In the sense that any one of us in the audience could have played an episode in this young, innocent life. Of course, I knew it was a somewhat radical conceit, and that the audience would at first be disoriented. But I thought that at a certain point it’ll kick in, that they’re going to get one character and multiple performers.”
Palindromes starts with the funeral of a favorite Solondz character, Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Dawn “Wiener Dog” Wiener. Aviva is her cousin, and when we first meet her, she’s telling her mother (played by Ellen Barkin) that she wants to have lots of babies ASAP so she’ll always be loved and not end up a miserable suicide like Dawn. But her precociously ticking biological clock isn’t the only thing about Aviva that makes her different from the typical white suburban teen.
“I had to use a black child at first to alert the audience that, if Ellen Barkin’s the mom, something’s off here,” Solondz says. “Then [Aviva’s] Latino, then she’s a redhead—it gets established that something’s going on. Then I push it further. I have a boy. I have a big black woman….
Finally you get to Jennifer Jason Leigh, and when you see her face, it’s of a woman of a certain age. “You see a kind of sorrow etched in it,” the filmmaker adds, “as if this character had lived a whole life, though of course she’s still only 13 years old.”
The gambit, he says, is partly an attempt to create a “wholly sympathetic character,” but the many faces of Aviva also relate to the film’s title. “As Mark Wiener [Dawn’s older brother in Dollhouse, who appears briefly in Palindromes] points out, despite all these metamorphoses—whether you gain 50 pounds or lose 50 pounds, or if you have a sex change, for that matter—that in some sense there’s a part of ourselves that’s immutable,” Solondz explains. “Part of ourselves resists change, which I characterize as palindromic.
“‘Mom,’ of course, is a palindrome,” he continues. “But more significantly, [Aviva’s] need to be a mom is so identifying. It marks her as a palindrome in that way.”
Finding willing child actors for the unrated film—a task the filmmaker gladly left in the hands of casting director Ann Goulder—was only one daunting aspect of a process Solondz doesn’t exactly love. In fact, 1995’s Dollhouse was the director’s return from filmmaking retirement, following the cold reception of his feature debut, 1989’s Fear Anxiety and Depression. (One online reviewer faintly praises it with “Not the best film, but it’ll surely not be checked out from your video store and you’ll definitely enjoy a few laughs.”) Solondz spent the next few years as an ESL teacher, and four features into his renewed cinematic career, he still characterizes his art as “just so stressful.”
“It’s just a nightmare, the actual production. It doesn’t get better,” he insists. And writing? “It’s just a different kind of nightmare. It’s a great question, What compels one to put pen to paper? It’s a process of discovery, I think. You write something, and you think you know what it’s about, but then you’re in production and it takes on a different meaning. I feel less like a director than a pursuer.”
“I’m amazed that I’m allowed to make any of these movies at all,” he concludes. “It’s very gratifying. And, hopefully, [the parents will] also take pride in their children’s participation”
That will probably depend on their reaction to the “moral and political charge” of this love story, which not only addresses the old Solondz topic of pedophilia, but adds abortion and an encounter with a conservative Christian named Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk) and her foster family of severely disabled kids. Though Palindromes’ indictment of fundamentalism seems particularly harsh, Solondz insists he’s not out to change anybody’s mind.
“It’s not a dogmatic work,” he says. “It’s not out to advocate a particular pro-choice or pro-life position…. It’s easy enough to hold a placard. But to look at these words—‘pro-choice,’ ‘pro-life’—they’re Orwellian. It’s all double-speak. It’s all a demonization of one side against the other, as if there is anti-choice and anti-life at work here.”
Solondz, in fact, finds the Mama Sunshine segment the film’s most moving, though he expects that his mostly liberal audience—“You don’t get a lot of conservative Christians at film festivals”—may be unsettled by the happy home he presents.
“Look, what Mama Sunshine does—what could be more virtuous than to take in the abandoned, the scarred and unwanted children, and create a kind of sanctuary?” Solondz asks. “So for all one’s politics as a liberal—you know, we can laugh at the ‘freedom toast’ and all the rest that goes on there, but at the same time, it’s a beautiful place. And that may be a hard thing for any healthy liberal to swallow. But, of course, if you’re a conservative Christian, you’ll say, ‘Ellen Barkin’s family, that’s the place that’s really troubling.’”
Though Solondz maintains that his presentation of Palindromes’ various worldviews is balanced, he regrets that his audience likely won’t be. “[Conservatives and liberals] live in such parallel universes,” he laments. “I wish I could have easier access to the red world, so to speak. I’ve gotten some evangelical response, and I’m also told that Christian Web sites have it in for me. But that’s to be expected to some extent.”
The filmmaker does admit, however, that despite his humble intention of telling a story that both red-and blue-staters can relate to, his approach to universal understanding can be a bit inflammatory to both camps. “When Mark Wiener’s falsely accused of this terrible crime, [Aviva] has the wisdom to see that he didn’t do it, rationalizing, ‘Pedophiles love children.’ And it’s like, My God, is this an advertisement for NAMBLA or something?”
“It’s very shocking, but you have to recognize that from her consciousness, there’s truth here,” Solondz continues. “[A pedophilic relationship] is how she found her love. And that’s what’s so troubling. That, for her, there was nothing sordid. And in the hysterical times in which we live, it’s very difficult to digest this. [Abuse scandals] are important things to be exposed, and yet there is a kind of damage to society’s psyche, affecting the way adults do engage with children. How do you sign up to be a Boy Scout leader today without people looking at you a little off?”
Solondz also suggests that outside the United States, Aviva’s early expression of her sexuality might not be so gasp-inducing. “It’s a taboo that shifts in meaning from culture to culture. In Japan, 13-year-old middle-class girls commonly take on jobs as paid escorts. It’s not that I’m advocating any of this, but [other civilizations] don’t shudder in revulsion. It’s built into the culture. In Africa and Asia, there are people who are married at 13.”
Still, given the director’s penchant for putting kids in what many Westerners regard as decidedly adult situations, it’s likely that the parents of his prospective actors might regard him as suspiciously as, well, an aspiring Boy Scout leader. “I worked with children in all my movies,” he says, “and they all involved delicate material. The parents receive the material, and then they decide after hearing what I have to say whether they want to make this leap of faith.”
“I don’t have kids,” Solondz says, “but if I did have a child clamoring to act, I certainly would feel good about my child acting in one of my movies, where I do think a certain dignity is accorded. Whereas I wouldn’t give permission to my child to act in a commercial for the Gap or AT&T or some detergent, where they’re essentially functioning as a shill. To me, that’s the obscenity.” —Tricia Olszewski